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President Biden will allow Congress to overturn new D.C. crime law

US President Joe Biden (C R) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speak to reporters as they depart the Senate Democrat policy luncheon at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 2, 2023.
Stefani Reynolds
AFP via Getty Images
US President Joe Biden (C R) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speak to reporters as they depart the Senate Democrat policy luncheon at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 2, 2023.

In a private meeting on Thursday President Biden informed Senate Democrats that he will not use his veto power to block a GOP-led effort to repeal D.C.'s new crime law. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer confirmed the decision to reporters following the meeting.

The president later confirmed his decision in a tweet stating: "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. If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did – I'll sign it."

The Senate is expected to vote as early as next week on a resolution that, if passed, would overturn a contentious law passed by the liberal Washington, D.C., city council to revise the capital's criminal code. The D.C. Council initially passed the law in November 2022, but it was vetoed by Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser. The council then over-rode the veto earlier this year.

Biden has the power to save the law by using his veto pen because neither chamber of Congress is likely to have a veto-proof margin to override it. His disinterest in doing so will hand Republicans a rare victory as well as provide the president some political cover to possible accusations that he is "soft" on crime ahead of his likely 2024 reelection bid.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents D.C. in Congress, said she was "disappointed" by the president's decision and hoped he would change his mind.

At issue are components of the new criminal code that would reduce maximum criminal penalties for violent crimes like carjackings, as well as expand rights to jury trials for certain misdemeanor offenses that critics said would stretch the capacity of an already overwhelmed court system. The debate is happening as the nation's capital has seen an uptick in crime, according to police data.

The GOP-led House already approved a resolution to block the crime bill last month, with 31 Democrats joining Republicans in favor of it. The vote took place the same day Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., was attacked in her D.C. apartment building. Craig voted to overturn the law. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has already said he will vote with Republicans, virtually ensuring it will pass the Senate because it requires only a simple majority to pass. Democrats are also down one vote as Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., is absent seeking mental health treatment.

Congress has unique legislative power over Washington, D.C., outlined both in the U.S. Constitution and the 1973 District of Columbia Home Rule Act, which gives Congress the power to block any laws by the D.C. Council. While rarely used, it is not unprecedented.

Most Democrats oppose overturning the new criminal code based on the party's support for D.C. statehood, and the argument that the city should be able to govern itself without federal interference. While Mayor Bowser shares concerns about the criminal code, The Washington Post reported she is lobbying senators to oppose the resolution and allow officials to address concerns with the code on the local level.

That message is compelling for Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. "For me, this just speaks to why D.C. statehood should be voted on, and I'm very much in support, because these issues should not be decided by us for the D.C. people. They should have their own representatives doing that."

Barbara Sprunt contributed to this report. contributed to this story

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Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.