President Joe Biden on Monday signed a measure repealing changes to the D.C. criminal code, breaking with the progressive wing of his party and taking a tough-on-crime stance ahead of his expected re-election bid.
Earlier this month, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the GOP-backed measure, which would undo changes to the Washington, D.C., criminal code. The House passed the resolution in February. Ahead of the Senate vote, Biden, who has been hit by a Republican-led assault over what they say is his soft stance on crime, said he would not veto the bill if Congress passed it, surprising members of his own party.
"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 wrote in a tweet. "If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I’ll sign it."
Late last year, the Council of the District of Columbia overhauled the city’s criminal code for the first time in a century, NBC's Washington outlet reported. The bill would have shifted Washington’s approach to crime, eliminating most mandatory minimum sentences and reducing mandatory maximum penalties. Mayor Muriel Bowser had opposed the changes to the city’s criminal code, saying they would not make the nation’s capital safer. But she called on Congress, which has the authority to review legislation the city passes, not to interfere with the district’s sovereignty.
At a rally before the Senate vote on the measure, Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting delegate to the House, called the legislation an “attack on home rule.”
“We have come together today with one simple message for Congress and President Biden: Keep your hands off D.C.,” said Norton, a Democrat. “You either support D.C. home rule or you don’t. There are no exceptions and there is no middle ground on D.C.’s right to self-government.”
After Biden’s announcement, D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson attempted to withdraw the measure from Congress and fend off its repeal, but Senate leadership aides said it was too late to retract the measure.
Several Senate Democrats rejected the resolution, affirming their support for D.C. statehood and arguing that it merely brought the city's criminal code in line with other states.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., wrote in a tweet that debate over the bill had gone "a bit off the rails."
"It lowers the carjacking maximum to 24 years, but that’s IN LINE with many states," he wrote. "And the bill INCREASES sentences for attempted murder, attempted sexual assault, misdemeanor sexual abuse and many other crimes."
“When you actually read the bill, compare it to criminal codes of other states, it is stunning to me that somehow this has been perverted and distorted to be seen as something that is some kind of lax loosening of penalties on people doing bad things,” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said at a caucus meeting ahead of the Senate vote.
But Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., who sponsored the Senate resolution, said in a statement that residents and visitors in the nation’s capital could “breathe easier today” after Biden signed the legislation.
“I am glad President Biden has finally acknowledged that we have a violent crime problem in our nation’s capital and that Congress has a vital role in ensuring that the D.C. Council’s soft-on-crime measure does not become law,” he said.