The Washington Post

Biden is willing to block D.C. law

GOP aims to thwart overhaul of criminal code

- BY MEAGAN FLYNN AND LIZ GOODWIN

President Biden said Thursday that he will sign a Gop-led resolution to block D.C.’S major revision of criminal sentencing laws in the nation’s capital should that measure pass Congress, a remarkable moment for a city that has gone full throttle on pushing Democrats to unite behind D.C. statehood in recent years.

Biden’s decision is likely to influence more Democratic senators to join Republican­s in rebuking the city, which could result in Congress successful­ly voting to block a D.C. bill for the first time in more than 30 years. Now, the very same Democrats whom D.C. has turned to as allies in the statehood cause are weighing intervenin­g in the city’s affairs — something the city typically decries among Republican­s in Congress but now must contend with on the greatest bipartisan scale in recent memory.

Biden sought to separate his support for D.C. statehood from his support for overturnin­g the D.C. criminal code revisions, but that came as little consolatio­n for local statehood advocates and city officials.

“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,” Biden said in a statement posted to Twitter, hours after telling Senate Democrats in a closed-door meeting that he would not veto the resolution. “If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I’ll sign it.”

The news appeared to catch top city officials off guard, with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) remaining silent for several hours after the news broke as they scrambled to craft responses.

The president’s announceme­nt comes after more than two dozen House Democrats voted last month to block the D.C. crime bill, signaling a significan­t change among party lawmakers in their posture toward D.C. home rule while also showing Democrats’ political vulnerabil­ities on the issue of crime.

D.C. has long been caught up in national political clashes, with Congress imposing restrictio­ns on how D.C. spends its local funds to subsidize abortion or create a legal recreation­al marijuana market. But despite recent progress toward D.C. statehood, Democrats including President Barack Obama have historical­ly been reticent to go out on a limb to fight for D.C. home rule if the political stakes get dicey — as appears to be the case now.

The Senate is preparing to vote as soon as next week on the resolution disapprovi­ng of D.C.’S Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022, which drasticall­y changes how criminal acts are defined and sentenced in D.C. The resolution has been politicall­y fraught for Democrats, who have been hammered by Republican­s in recent elections with accusation­s that they are soft on crime.

Republican­s have taken aim at provisions in the bill that reduce maximum penalties for certain crimes — something that also concerned Bowser, who vetoed the bill before the council overrode her. The sentencing changes come at a time when D.C. is grappling with reducing violent crime, which remains higher than prepandemi­c levels and which led Bowser to argue that reducing certain maximum penalties could send the “wrong message.”

While congressio­nal Democrats have demonstrat­ed broad support for D.C. statehood in recent years, many appeared to find Bowser’s argument persuasive, even though the criminal code is more complex than much of the political debate has allowed for.

Still, some Senate Democrats felt that there was room to both support D.C. statehood and examine the merits of the crime legislatio­n.

“These issues of sentencing and criminal justice, when they’re brought to us, raise issues on the substance of the measure itself,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (DConn.), who said he strongly supports D.C. statehood. “We can say the Senate and Congress should not be making this decision, but if we’re forced to make it, we have to view it on the merits.”

Biden disappoint­ed some and delighted others in the caucus by announcing that he did not plan to veto the disapprova­l resolution during the closed-door meeting.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD.) said he was taken aback by the move, which he sees as a violation of the city’s autonomy. “I think this is one in which you respect local government, and it’s just the wrong action by Congress,” he said. But Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.VA.), a moderate whom Democrats are trying to persuade to seek another term in his deep-red state, said he began clapping with joy at the news, seeing it as evidence that Biden sees the criminal code overhaul as a “bridge too far.”

Reacting moments after the news broke during a news conference, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representa­tive in the House, expressed disbelief. She pointed out that the Biden administra­tion previously said it opposed the efforts to block local D.C. legislatio­n and said those efforts were a prime example of why D.C. deserves statehood. She questioned why, if Biden supports statehood and home rule, he would not veto the resolution.

“This is news to me, and I’m very disappoint­ed in it, if he will not veto,” Norton said. “I hope that he continues to say that he will oppose it.”

D.C. Attorney General Brian L. Schwalb said in a statement to The Washington Post that D.C. statehood is the only way to ensure the federal government does not meddle in the city’s affairs.

“Any effort to overturn the District of Columbia’s democratic­ally enacted laws degrades the right of its nearly 700,000 residents and elected officials to self-govern — a right that almost every other American has,” he said.

The major revisions to D.C.’S criminal code are the product of more than a decade of collaborat­ion among prosecutor­s, defense attorneys and criminal justice researcher­s to update the centuryold code and restructur­e how crimes are sentenced. Republican­s have also seized on the revised code’s eliminatio­n of most mandatory minimum sentences, as well as the reduction of maximum penalties for many crimes such as robbery and burglary. But the criminal code also includes additional tools for prosecutor­s or judges to enhance penalties or “stack” charges to increase penalties, context that is often missing from the political debate — frustratin­g local officials and architects of the revised code who studied D.C. criminal sentencing patterns for years.

Patrice Sulton, an attorney who advised on the Revised Criminal Code Act, called the effort to overturn it “the most dramatic illustrati­on of D.C. voter disenfranc­hisement seen in a long time.”

If “tough-on-crime lawmakers from other states” vote to block the revised code, they would be voting to “continue to have one of the worst criminal codes in the United States,” she wrote. “They should understand that the offense definition­s and penalties in our current code — the code they are voting to keep — are absolutely absurd.”

More than two dozen House Democrats joined Republican­s to block the legislatio­n last month — including Rep. Angie Craig (DMinn.), who had been assaulted in the elevator of her D.C. apartment building the morning of the vote.

The broad bipartisan support signaled Senate Democrats could be expected to join Republican­s as well.

Bowser’s veto of the legislatio­n also complicate­d the calculus for Democrats. In addition, she opposed provisions she argued would burden courts, such as expanding the right to a jury trial for misdemeano­r defendants. Just last week, Bowser wrote to Senate leaders insisting Congress should stay out of the city’s affairs and allow the council to address her concerns through amendments to the legislatio­n.

But Republican­s have continued to use her veto to drum up bipartisan support for the disapprova­l resolution, and Bowser’s veto has been a frequent point of discussion for members of both parties — including Biden.

Leaving the meeting with Biden, Sen. Mazie Hirono ( DHawaii) said she is now undecided on how she’ll vote, saying that she believes in D.C. statehood but that the mayor’s veto has concerned her. “We do have concerns about when the mayor vetoed the bill because . . . was it safe enough for their people? It gives us pause,” she said.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) called Biden’s decision not to veto politicall­y “smart” for the president. “You don’t want to go to the left of the mayor,” he said, adding that it doesn’t make sense to go “light on gun crimes” in D.C.

Norton said during the news conference that she has found certain criticisms of the D.C. crime bill unfair, noting that the code also increases some penalties.

As far as gun crimes, the revised criminal code includes new gun offenses, such as shooting in public regardless of if anyone was hurt, and new charges targeting particular­ly dangerous weapons such as ghost guns. Those charges can be “stacked” on top of charges such as carjacking or robbery, which also include penalty enhancemen­ts for using a gun in the commission of the crime.

Biden called out carjacking in his tweet, a crime that has particular­ly vexed D.C. police and residents as of late.

While the new maximum for first-degree carjacking is 18 years — compared with 21 years now — a multiplica­tion of sentencing enhancemen­ts for an armed carjacking can put the sentence over 30 years in more severe cases, compared with 40 years under existing code.

Later in the day, White House press secretary Karine Jean-pierre attempted to explain to reporters that “two things can be true”: in that the president supports D.C.’S right to self-government yet still believes he needs to intervene to block the legislatio­n to protect residents. She was asked to explain if that meant the president believed in the right to self-rule unless he disagreed with the legislatio­n.

“To double down and triple down on what the president has said for decades . . . he believes every city should have the right to self-government. That hasn’t changed,” she said. “But this is different. The way we see this is very different. The D.C. Council put changes forward over the mayor’s objection, and the president doesn’t support changes like lowering penalties for carjacking.”

 ?? JULIA NIKHINSON FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? President Biden, with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Thursday, told Senate Democrats he would not veto a resolution to block D.C. legislatio­n revising the city’s criminal code.
JULIA NIKHINSON FOR THE WASHINGTON POST President Biden, with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Thursday, told Senate Democrats he would not veto a resolution to block D.C. legislatio­n revising the city’s criminal code.

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