WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Thursday he will sign a Republican-backed resolution that would override the District of Columbia’s controversial new rewrite of its criminal sentencing laws despite his administration’s initial opposition to congressional intervention.
His signature would allow Congress to overturn a DC bill for the first time in 30 years, marking a rare moment of Biden clashing with local leaders of the nation’s capital he backs making the 51st state.
“I support DC statehood and home-rule,” Biden said in a statement, “but I don’t support some of the changes DC Council put forward over the mayor’s objections – such as lowering penalties for carjackings. If the Senate votes to overturn what DC Council did – I’ll sign it.”
Inside the DC criminal code fight
The DC City Council late last year approved a new local criminal code that includes the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes and the reduction of maximum sentences for crimes such as robbery and burglary.
The council, which leans strongly to the left, overrode a veto from DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat and Biden ally, who raised concerns about lighter sentences for crimes.
The local ordinance’s passage followed two decades of efforts to redo DC’s crime laws. It faced immediate criticism from Republicans, who have hammered Democrats as soft on crime in recent years. Washington had its highest number of murders in 2022 in nearly 20 years.
Legislation to overturn DC’s crime law passed the House last month, with 31 Democrats joining Republicans. It is expected to have bipartisan support in the Senate. A Senate vote could happen as early as next week. The US Constitution grants Congress the power to overturn local DC legislation.
The White House Office of Management said it opposed the resolution in a Feb. 6 official statement of administration policy, saying “Congress should respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs.”
Biden faced a major political dilemma
Biden faced a major political dilemma whether to let the resolution become law or vetoing it and opening himself up to criticism as soft on crime during the 2024 presidential election.
He opted against the latter.
Biden has worked to distance himself from the “defund the police” mantra of the left. It’s not hard to imagine the Republican ads next year accusing Biden of reducing sentences for criminals if he had pulled out the veto pen.
More: What would statehood for Washington, DC mean — and could it finally happen?
Still, you can bet Biden won’t have a public bill-signing ceremony for this one.
His signature won’t sit well with many in the left-leaning capital who have backed the president. Even Bowser, who opposed the council’s criminal law revisions, asked Congress to let local leaders deal with the issue.
Nor will Biden’s decision please many activists who have pushed Biden to pass policing and other criminal justice reforms.
What they’re saying
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tried to walk a fine line on the issue as she was pressed by reporters Thursday, saying Biden believes every city “has the right to self-government” but also wants to keep communities safe.
“This is different,” Jean-Pierre said. “The DC Council put forward changes over the mayor’s objections, and the president doesn’t support changes like lowering penalties for carjacking.”
Tennessee Sen. Bill Hagerty, a Republican sponsor of the resolution, was pleased with Biden’s decision. “I hope these reports are true and that President Biden is no longer threatening to veto my commonsense resolution to block the soft-on-crime DC Crime Bill. Reducing violent crime should not be controversial.”
Contributing: Associated Press
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden says he’ll sign bill blocking DC criminal law overhaul