Biden won’t veto GOP effort to repeal D.C. crime law
President Joe Biden told Senate Democrats on Thursday that he would not veto a GOP-backed bid to repeal changes to the D.C. criminal code, raising the stakes of an upcoming Senate vote on the proposal.
Biden’s plans not to veto, relayed by three attendees at the party meeting, leave Republicans on track to roll back the new D.C. law when the Senate takes up the House-passed measure as soon as next week. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) had already said he will support the disapproval bid, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) backed it on Thursday and Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) is on an extended leave for health issues, eliminating the margin for error in the 51-49 Senate.
And Biden’s lack of a veto threat might open the floodgates on the D.C. crime vote. Several Democrats predicted an overwhelming margin of support to roll back some of D.C.’s recent progressive crime measures.
“I think that’s where most of the caucus is. Most of the caucus sees the mayor in a reasonable position as saying: 95 percent of this is really good, some of this is problematic. And we need to keep working on it,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said after the meeting.
Biden’s much-anticipated Thursday remarks end several weeks of mystery surrounding his handling of a politically perilous vote for his party. And it comes as the president moves to strengthen the ties with Hill Democrats that propelled him to the party’s nomination.
The president also told Senate Democrats during their meeting that he wants to see immigration reform on the floor, according to Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and left several Democratic senators with the distinct impression that he’s running for reelection. In addition, Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) said that Biden addressed the debt ceiling by remarking that he’s waiting for Republicans to show him a budget.
Following their meeting, Schumer also told reporters that the president would support Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and J.D. Vance’s (R-Ohio) bill on railroad protections following the East Palestine train derailment in their state, along with tackling insulin prices for people under 65. The debt limit and budget, along with an “online protection tech bill for kids,” were also discussed, Schumer said.
“We had a great meeting,” Schumer said as he exited the meeting with Biden. “We talked about implementing the great accomplishments of the president of the last two years. We believe we can get a lot of good bipartisan stuff done in these two years. We are filled with unity, optimism, and optimism about 2024.”
But Biden’s most potent comments came on the GOP efforts to unravel the criminal code reform that the D.C. Council passed over Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto. That citywide legislation would scrap some mandatory minimum sentences and change some criminal penalties. Senators cannot filibuster the rollback as a result of the Home Rule Act, which gives Congress special oversight over local Washington affairs.
After the meeting, Biden tweeted that he supports D.C. statehood and local autonomy but does not “support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings. If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I’ll sign it.”
Senate Democrats have squirmed for two-plus weeks over the vote, which Republicans plan to force to the floor as soon as next week and would be the first congressional override of local D.C. affairs since 1991. Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) predicted that “there will be substantial bipartisan support for a resolution to reject the proposed changes.”
Besides the obvious implications of a vote on the potent political issue of crime, some Senate Democrats are plainly uncomfortable with congressional intervention in D.C.’s affairs.
“I’m disappointed. First of all, I hope the Senate would not pass it. But I think it’s pretty clear they will,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “And to me, the Congress should not substitute its judgment for the elected representatives of the people of the District of Columbia.”
Yet it appears that Democrats’ discomfort with the D.C. law — a near-rewrite of the capital’s criminal code — is carrying more weight than their natural inclination not to interfere.
“I guess [Biden] thinks it’s too far — a bridge too far, which it really is. I’m glad he said that,” Manchin said leaving the meeting, adding that he clapped loudly when Biden disclosed his view to his fellow Democrats.
House Republicans first teed up the bill in February, amid a highly public clash between D.C.’s council and its mayor over the sweeping crime bill. In the House, the GOP-led bill won support from 31 Democrats, many of them moderates who have already called for stronger action on nationwide rise in crime since the pandemic. One swing-seat Democrat who backed the bill, Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.), voted for it mere hours after she was assaulted in her D.C. apartment building.
Biden’s move to let Congress stop the criminal code changes in D.C. may aggravate locals, but will be a relief to many congressional Democrats who are weary of GOP attacks on them over progressive urban crime proposals. And it comes as prominent Democrats are talking less about Biden’s age or whether he should run again and more about working together heading into the 2024 election.
In the meeting on Thursday, Biden’s reelection campaign did not explicitly come up but it was mostly assumed he’s running again: “I didn’t hear negative vibes on that,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
“The pieces are together. He’ll run again. And he’ll get full support from the caucus,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “It’s a good feel overall.”
But not everyone is feeling the love. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), an outspoken progressive who’s mostly pro-Biden, said he’s had a couple issues lately with the president. He cited the administration’s new effort to restrict asylum in certain migration cases — “that’s a bad policy,” he said — and then a lack of public follow-through on an environmental justice initiative.
And this week, Bowman said he was “hurt” by the Biden team’s handling of a Black History Month celebration at the White House, which he said was so crowded that several of his colleagues left early rather than try to fight for space.
“They had us packed in the room like sardines,” Bowman said of the White House event, comparing it to better-planned events that span multiple rooms, like the annual Christmas party. “That was, to me, very disrespectful. A slap in the face.”
For now, though, Bowman’s view is an outlier. And Biden got a warm welcome Wednesday night when he visited a group of House Democrats in Baltimore at their annual policy retreat.
Reflecting on their much-improved rapport with Biden since last year’s squabbling over his party-line agenda, many Democrats said there was little doubt he would glide to the nomination in 2024.
“If we, the elected officials, are not with him. I think he’s going to have a very difficult time winning reelection. I gotta tell you, I just don’t see people being against him,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.).
“I look at everybody else who’s out there. I mean, he’s a little old. That’s true, he’s gotta address that. But other than his age, he’s the best guy we have in my opinion.”
Jordain Carney contributed to this report.
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