House Democrats blindsided as Biden changes tune on DC crime bill
House Democrats were infuriated and taken aback by President Biden’s announcement on Thursday that he will sign a resolution to nix the District of Columbia’s crime bill.
The crime bill has come under heavy criticism from Republicans and centrist Democrats. But last month, 173 House Democrats voted along with what they thought was the White House’s stance that Biden would veto the resolution in an attempt to stand up for the District’s “home rule.”
Instead, Biden made the revelation to Senate Democrats during lunch on Thursday and, in the process, angered their colleagues across the Capitol complex.
“The White House f***** this up royally,” one House Democrat told The Hill via text message, noting the White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy opposing the resolution and backing D.C., and that House Democratic leadership told lawmakers that Biden was prepared to veto the measure.
The declaration from the Office of Management and Budget called on Congress to “respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs.”
“So a lot of us who are allies voted no in order to support what the White House wanted. And now we are being hung out to dry,” the lawmaker continued. “F****** AMATEUR HOUR. HEADS SHOULD ROLL OVER AT THE WHITE HOUSE OVER THIS.”
The House Democrat added multiple other lawmakers were “EXTREMELY pissed” about the situation.
Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), the No. 3 House Democrat, issued a rare rebuke of the White House during a Punchbowl News event at the caucus’s retreat in Baltimore, saying that Biden’s move was “disappointing.”
“It’s disappointing for me and anybody who believes in home rule, honestly. I’m a former mayor of a city of 70,000 and I wouldn’t want the federal government coming in and telling me what city ordinances to pass. … So I think it’s disappointing in that context,” Aguilar said.
“I voted against it, but I understand and respect the president’s position here,” Aguilar, the former mayor of Redlands, Calif., continued. “We’ll see, the Senate has to pass that, and I know that they’ve said they have the votes but all of those things have to happen. But it’s disappointing for those of us who believe in home rule.”
An aide to a House Democrat who opposed the measure texted that the caucus is “a little shocked” by the move.
The crime bill passed the D.C. City Council unanimously in January. After Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) vetoed it, the city council overrode it 12-1. Among other things, the bill would eliminate most mandatory sentences and lower penalties for a number of violent offenses, including carjackings and robberies. It would also expand the requirement for jury trials in most misdemeanor cases.
In a tweet, Biden specifically mentioned the issue of carjackings. As of Thursday, there have been 94 carjackings in D.C. in 2023 alone.
“One thing that the president believes in is making sure that the streets in America and communities across the country are safe, that includes in D.C. That does not change,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Thursday.
“When it comes to what this proposal brings forth, which is really lowering penalties for car-jacking, he doesn’t believe that’s going to keep our communities safe,” she added.
Nevertheless, the move still left Democrats with a sour taste in their mouths.
“Today has been a sad day for D.C. home rule and D.C. residents’ right to self-governance,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said in a statement. “We had hoped that with more Senate support, we would have been able to ensure that neither disapproval resolution pending before the Senate would reach the president’s desk, but with the nationwide increase in crime, most senators do not want to be seen as supporting criminal justice reform.”
Holmes Norton added that she will still try to convince Biden that absent a veto, the resolution “would empower the paternalistic, anti-democratic Republican opposition to the principle of local control over local affairs.”
Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.), both of whom are up for reelection in 2024, have said in recent days they plan to side with Republicans on the resolution, giving those backing it enough daylight to put it over the finish line even with the hospitalizations of Sens. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
The news is also expected to push more Democrats to side with Biden and the centrists.
“I’m reviewing the actual provisions of the D.C. crime bill, talking to colleagues. And the president obviously said he will not veto the measure, which I think may weigh with my colleagues,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told reporters.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is also up for reelection in 2024, told reporters following Biden’s news that he still is undecided on the resolution and has not been briefed on it yet.
From a political standpoint, Biden’s decision to block the D.C. crime bill could come back to haunt the House Democrats who opposed the disapproval resolution. Some Republicans are already characterizing the revised code as soft-on-crime, which they could eventually extend to those 173 liberal lawmakers.
“By rejecting D.C.‘s law, President Biden acknowledged the basic fact that soft-on-crime policies endanger the public,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote on Twitter.
Democrats are already worrying that they played into the GOP’s hands.
“Frankly, it’s a clear signal to those criticizing POTUS on being soft on crime amid the increased focus on the issue going into 2024 — and on the heels of Lightfoot’s ouster,” the aide said, referring to the Chicago mayor’s re-election defeat this week.
Aguilar, for his part, brushed off that notion on Thursday, pointing to legislation the caucus has passed and efforts it backed that support public safety.
“Democrats believe in strong public safety,” he said. “That’s what we’re demonstrating in our bills and demonstrated time and time again.”
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