Joe Biden

‘Travesty for Statehood': DC Leaders Fire Back at Congress, Biden Over Crime Bill

The Senate is expected to vote on whether to overturn the D.C. Council's reforms next week

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Congress and the president are expected to nullify a Washington, D.C., law for the first time in more than 30 years, and District leaders are expressing frustration over what they say is a major step backwards for statehood.

President Joe Biden said Thursday he won't veto a measure that would block D.C. from enacting a controversial criminal code reform bill if it lands on his desk.

"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 on Twitter. "If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did – I’ll sign it."

"This is about Republicans being able to nationalize this for politics and Democrats caving into this. I mean, this is an absolute travesty for statehood," D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen said Friday on WAMU's The Politics Hour with Kojo Nnamdi and Tom Sherwood.

"Until we are the 51st state, we live with that indignity and as infuriating as it is, it’s incumbent on all of us to make sure that we're smart and strategic about passing and getting our laws enacted," D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said on The Politics Hour.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre addressed the issue in a briefing Friday, repeatedly saying, "D.C. is not a state."

"He has said that for decades, that he believes in D.C. statehood, but it's - it's not, and so, therefore, because D.C. is not a state, bills like this come, occur - it goes to the president, and he has to make a decision and that's where we are. It's as simple as that," Jean-Pierre said.

Both Bowser and Allen warned that Biden's decision opens the door for Congress to take aim at other laws in D.C. that could win lawmakers points in an election year.

“Newsflash: The Congress has been interfering with abortion rights for years in the District. They’ve been interfering with the ability to tax and sell marijuana. They stopped for years our ability for fair needle exchange. So this is not a new issue," Bowser said.

"They can come after women’s health. They can come after gun safety. They can come after protecting transgender children from discrimination. This is just the beginning of what we see Republicans be able to do and the Democrats just stood down,” Allen said.

Replying to the president's tweet, many D.C. residents questioned how he could say he supports home rule, but allow Congress to overturn the will of locally elected officials.

"What does supporting home rule mean if you're overturning the laws we pass?" one Twitter user wrote.

"If you were an ally to statehood you'd let the city govern itself w/o intervention," another Twitter user said.

In February, the Republican-led House voted to overturn the sweeping re-write of D.C.'s criminal code, which the D.C. Council passed last year.

The Senate is poised to vote on the disapproval resolution next week, and some Senate Democrats have voiced support for the measure.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., will vote with Senate Republicans to roll back the criminal code reform bill, a spokesperson for Manchin said Tuesday.

With Senate Democrats down by at least one vote and some moderate Democratic senators who say they're still undecided on the measure, Manchin's vote alongside the congressional chamber's 49 Republicans would give the GOP the majority needed to override the D.C. Council's bill.

If it survives, the sweeping rewrite of D.C.'s criminal code would eliminate most mandatory minimum sentences, reduce mandatory maximum penalties and allow jury trials for misdemeanors.

The District's criminal code hasn’t been overhauled in more than 100 years, and after 16 years of studies and proposals, the Council unanimously approved the new criminal code in November.

"We reject the oppression and paternalism of federal interference. We reject the complete disregard for our legislative process and our values," D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen said in a statement after news of Biden's remarks.

Allen said the revised criminal code is "badly needed legislation" and accused federal lawmakers of "manufacturing 'tough on crime' rhetoric" at the District's expense.

"Defending those without power matters, and past pledges of support for DC Statehood couldn’t ring more hollow," Allen said.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser opposed several elements of the reform bill, but the Council overrode her veto.

Bowser proposed legislation in February to change parts of the law she believes would hurt public safety and increase the burdens on the courts.

"We're experiencing more robberies and carjackings and people using guns, and I think the message of accountability for those crimes has to be abundantly clear," she said.

Police Chief Robert Contee has also voiced concerns about the reforms.

"Anytime you talk about reducing penalties, the consequence that is associated with crimes that are particularly impactful to community members, I think that that is just a non-starter," Contee said.

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