(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden, during a visit to Capitol Hill Thursday, told Senate Democrats behind closed doors that he would not veto a controversial Republican-led effort to roll back Washington, D.C.’s new progressive criminal code, a move that gives political cover to Democrats up for reelection.
Afterward, Biden refused to answer ABC News’ shouted questions about how he’d handle the congressional bill if it came to his desk. But multiple senators confirmed that he told them there would be no veto.
“He said that very clearly and we heard it very loud and clear,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., as he was departing the lunch. “I clapped very loudly because I feel the same.”
Biden later confirmed in a tweet that he would sign the legislation to rescind the new criminal code, passed by the D.C. City Council, if it comes to his desk. The city’s Democratic mayor, Muriel Bowser, had vetoed the local legislation but the council overrode her veto.
“I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule — but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings,” he tweeted. “If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I’ll sign it.”
The city’s criminal code has been the subject of much debate locally and at the federal level, with Congress having the ultimate say over D.C. laws.
The Republican-controlled House voted last month to block the criminal code revision, which would require more jury trials and reduces penalties for carjacking, robbery and some other violent crimes. The Biden administration said at the time that it opposed the House action, saying Congress should respect D.C.’s autonomy, but didn’t commit to a presidential veto.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was hammered with questions about the president’s apparent reversal at the daily briefing. She told reporters his view on statehood hasn’t changed.
“The way that we see this is, it’s very different. This is, the D.C. Council put changes forward over the mayor’s objections. And the president doesn’t support changes like lowering penalties for carjacking,” she said.
“Look one thing that the president believes in is making sure that the streets in America and communities across the country are safe,” she added. “That includes D.C. — that does not change.”
Manchin, who’s up for reelection next November, announced his support for the effort to quash the new D.C. measure earlier this week. His support, coupled with Sen. John Fetterman’s absence, made it more likely that the GOP-bill would pass.
But Biden’s decision not to stand in its way gives potentially vulnerable Democrats cover on crime issues, some of whom left the lunch outright saying they’ll now vote with Republicans to quash the D.C. law.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat facing reelection in 2024, said he’ll vote with Republicans to quash the city measure next week, highlighting that Bowser vetoed it.
“I think calling it a home rule thing is not so accurate as this is about getting it right,” Heinrich said. “We all realize there are some very serious crime issues.”
Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, who will also be on the ballot next year, also said he’ll vote to block the D.C. law.
“I didn’t support what they [D.C.] did,” Casey said, though he said Biden’s decision not to veto did not affect his decision.
Other Democrats were more hesitant to explicitly state how they’d vote but several said they have real concerns about the D.C. measure. It was a noted change of tone from conversations earlier this week as Democrats consider the political implications of backing legislation that Republicans could claim makes them “soft on crime.”
Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., is still reviewing the bill, but said she is focused on keeping communities, including D.C. where she resides part time, safe.
“I can tell you the most important thing we hear from everyone is safe and security communities,” said Rosen, who will face reelection in 2024. “We have to be sure we are protecting everyone as best we can.”
“I have concerns about the reduction in some of the crime sentencing that I’ve seen, as a former prosecutor with respect to reduction in crime around carjackings and home invasions,” said Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who narrowly won reelection in purple Nevada in November. “It’s not ready yet for prime time.”
Most Democrats who said they will vote to block the GOP-proposed bill next week are doing so not because they back the changes to D.C. criminal code, but because support D.C. self-rule.
“If I had been on the city council I would have voted against the measure,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said. “But I respect the process of the people of the District of Columbia to self-determination.”
Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty, who is sponsoring the effort to quash the D.C. bill, dismissed those concerns.
“I think there’s a bit of conflation with D.C. statehood and what is simply a public safety issue. D.C. statehood is a separate issue. This is this is about the safety of everybody in D.C. It’s the safety of my staff and the safety of constituents. I had 150 people in to visit me just yesterday,” the Tennessee Republican said.
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