White House struggles to explain Biden decision on DC crime bill

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre
Annabelle Gordon
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre addresses reporters during the daily briefing at the White House on Friday, March 3, 2023.

The White House on Friday struggled to explain President Biden’s decision to not veto a GOP resolution of disapproval that would overturn a crime bill passed by the District of Columbia, a move that has drawn howls of protest from House Democrats

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre defended Biden’s handling of the situation and the White House’s communication with Democrats.

She said that when a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) was issued ahead of the House’s Feb. 9 vote on the measure, it didn’t say whether the president would issue a veto.

“We never laid out where the president was going to go,” Jean-Pierre said. “There was never a change of heart with where we were on the SAP.”

While the SAP did not say whether Biden would veto the GOP resolution of disapproval if it hit his desk, it did lay out his opposition to the resolution.

“The Administration opposes H.J. Res. 24, Disapproving the Action of the District of Columbia Council in Approving the Local Resident Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2022,” the SAP said.

“While we work towards making Washington, D.C. the 51st state of our Union, Congress should respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs,” it continued.

Many Democrats expected Biden to veto the measure based on that language — and the fact that the GOP measure would undo a city law approved by the Washington, D.C., City Council. Biden and most Democrats favor “home rule” for the capital city, a practice of allowing the representatives elected by its residents to determine the city’s policies.

By not vetoing the GOP measure, Biden is essentially letting the Congress undo the D.C. City Council’s measure.

But vetoing the GOP measure would have opened Biden and Democrats up to political attacks that they are soft on crime given the specifics of the D.C. measure, which would reduce mandatory sentences for various crimes, among other things.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said on Friday that she thought Biden “should’ve spoken sooner” about his plans to not veto the bill.

“I think he should’ve spoken sooner,” she said. “He had earlier indicated that he disapproved of the resolution and I had hoped that that meant that … he would veto it and that would be understood in the Senate as well.”

Thirty-one Democrats voted for the GOP measure in last month’s House vote, though 173 voted against it. Biden’s signal that he won’t veto the bill could give political cover for at least some Senate Democrats to back it.

The measure cannot be filibustered and only needs a majority vote to pass the Senate.

A House Democrat on Thursday told The Hill that multiple lawmakers were “EXTREMELY pissed” about the situation. Another, via text message, told The Hill that “The White House f—– this up royally.”

The White House on Thursday had said that Biden’s decision to not veto it was based on that he was broadly concerned it would make District residents less safe.

During Friday’s press briefing, Jean-Pierre said D.C.’s special status — it is not a state — also contributed to Biden’s decision.

“Right now, D.C. is not a state, this is coming to the president, this is something that’s coming to his desk. And, he has to take action,” Jean-Pierre said. “This is not a legislation that he put forward. D.C. is not a state, even though he supports D.C. statehood, and he had to make a decision.”

Jean-Pierre also claimed on Friday that House Democrats were notified about the president’s decision when he visited their retreat in Baltimore one day ahead of the announcement that he would sign a resolution.

“Let me just say that the White House notified the members of the House retreat that was earlier this week,” she said.

Democrats on Thursday said they felt blindsided by the president’s announcement, including Holmes Norton, who said, “That’s news to me,” when asked about Biden telling Senate Democrats he would not veto the bill.

Mychael Schnell contributed.

Tags DC crime bill Eleanor Holmes Norton Joe Biden Karine Jean-Pierre Karine Jean-Pierre President Joe Biden

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