President Joe Biden surprised Democratic senators Thursday when he told them that he won’t veto GOP-led legislation to rescind a controversial Washington, DC, crime law, a move that comes Democrats are divided over the contentious issue and Republicans are aggressively accusing them of being soft on crime.
Multiple senators told reporters that Biden made the announcement at a closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill.
A Senate vote to scrap the DC bill is expected next week. It passed last month in the Republican-controlled House with the backing of 31 Democrats. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who represents the deep-red state of West Virginia and is up for reelection next year, said earlier this week that he wants to get rid of the DC law.
The upcoming vote has split Senate Democrats, reflecting the delicate balancing act the party faces on the issue of crime, a politically charged topic Republicans frequently criticize Democrats over.
In a recent floor speech, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell defended the push to scrap the DC law.
“When the soft-on-crime local government has become this incompetent; when members of Congress can’t go about their daily lives without being attacked; when families cannot come to visit their own capital in safety; then it is high time the federal government provides some adult supervision,” the Kentucky Republican said.
Biden’s announcement was planned in advance, according to a source familiar, and came after days of White House officials dodging questions about whether he’d veto the measure. Instead, they pointed to a Statement of Administration Policy that noted opposition to the measure on the grounds of respecting the autonomy of the district.
The omission of any mention of the policy the measure would roll back underscored an implicit reality: Biden disagrees with the DC Council policy.
Many Democrats oppose overriding the law on principle, arguing that local officials should make their own laws free of congressional interference. But following the news that Biden will not issue a veto, a number of Senate Democrats are now publicly saying they will vote for the measure.
Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii said she’s torn: “On the one hand, I very much support DC statehood. I support home rule. … On the other hand, when the mayor vetoed the bill saying that it would not provide enough safety even if 95% of the bill was good, I am torn.”
Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat from Arizona, told CNN he thinks a lot of his Democratic colleagues “will be voting for it,” including him.
Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said that he’d already made up his mind before Biden’s announcement but that he also would be voting for the House measure.
Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said, “Calling it a home rule thing is not so accurate. This is about getting it right when we all realize there are some very serious crime issues.” He too will be voting for the measure.
A number of others, including fierce defenders of DC statehood, said they were still weighing a decision.
“It’s a complicated issue,” Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said, adding that he’d take the weekend to consider it.
“I haven’t been briefed yet,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana.
Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada said she was still reviewing it as well.
This story has been updated with additional developments.