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No veto of measure blocking new D.C. criminal code, Biden tells senators

President's decision shocks D.C.'s Holmes Norton, CBC Chair Horsford

President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer arrive for the Democrats’ senate luncheon in the Capitol on Thursday.
President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer arrive for the Democrats’ senate luncheon in the Capitol on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Joe Biden told Senate Democrats on Thursday he would not veto a House-passed measure that would block Washington, D.C.’s revised criminal code — which members of both parties say is too lenient on criminals.

“The President, obviously, says he will not veto the measure,” said Senate Judiciary member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., telling reporters after the meeting that he is still “reviewing the actual provisions of the D.C. crime bill.”

Biden’s announcement caught D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton off guard when reporters caught up to her at House Democrats’ “issues retreat” in Baltimore.

“He has not issued a veto threat, but he had said he was not for it, so this is news to me and I’m very disappointed … if he will not veto,” she said. “I hope that he continues to say that he will oppose it.”

That was not the case inside the Capitol on Thursday, senators said.

Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Steven Horsford, D-Nev., also expressed disappointment — but said opponents of the House measure plan to seek the votes to stop its path to Biden’s desk.

“We will be working with the leadership in the Senate, at the request of the delegate [Holmes Norton], to ensure that the Senate understands the importance of D.C. residents being heard in their process and the government discretion that should be left at the local level,” Horsford said at the Baltimore retreat, adding that some senators need to be educated on the matter. “What the Senate does will matter in how the president chooses to act subsequently.”

The opponents have some work to do, including engaging with Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who said Thursday he still needs to get updated on “what the damn thing does,” and did not say how he might vote. “I don’t exactly know what it does. If it reduces penalties for crimes that I think are bad crimes, then it’s going to influence how I vote,” he said. “On the other hand, if I don’t think it’s that big of a deal, then we’ll go the other way.”

One Washington-area Democrat emerged from the session unsurprised by the president’s decision to allow the measure blocking the new code to become law, should the Senate approve it next week.

“If I had been on the [D.C.] Council, I would’ve voted against the measure,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who once represented Maryland’s 8th District as a member from Montgomery County, which borders the District.

The House on Feb. 9 voted 250-173 to pass a second disapproval measure against a rewrite of the D.C. criminal code, which 31 House Democrats supported. The District Council’s bill would overhaul the criminal statutes by reducing sentences and expanding the right to a jury trial for misdemeanor cases. It drew howls from many GOP members as an example, to them, of big-city leaders refusing to get tough on rising crime.

Biden’s decision comes amid an uptick in some crimes inside the District and continues his complicated track record with the hot-button issue. Asked when he would announce a 2024 bid, Biden on Thursday played coy about his plans, saying, “When I announce.”

Biden’s start-of-session huddle with majority Senate Democrats was his first such visit since Republicans claimed a narrow House majority in November’s midterm elections. While the prospects are low for major legislation to reach his desk, the 118th Senate will be tasked with confirming his judicial and executive branch nominees.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said the hourlong session covered “a lot of issues,” noting “the most important thing that I heard was about infrastructure.” He declined to disclose specifics.

The president and Senate Democrats also discussed their need to remain “united” against what they still say are GOP intentions to insist on cuts to Medicare and Social Security in any coming debt ceiling deal, Blumenthal said. “With every passing day, we are more united” on “rejecting any attempt to hold hostage” the two popular entitlement programs, he added.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel issued a statement just before Biden left the White House for the meeting that the president and his Senate cohorts “should be focused on keeping Americans safe and fixing the economic crisis they created, from out-of-control inflation to plummeting wages.”

“What are they doing instead? Talking about raising taxes on hardworking Americans and blocking a bipartisan crime bill that would put citizens before criminals.”

A couple of hours before Biden arrived on the Senate side, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said the presidential visit would focus on turning the page from a 117th Congress in which Democrats stuck together to pass several major bills.

“The last two years focused on getting our agenda passed into law,” the New York Democrat said on the floor. “The next two years will be about implementing that agenda.”

Biden’s Capitol visit came less than 24 hours after he addressed House Democrats in Baltimore during their issues retreat.

The president mostly touted Democrats’ legislative and other accomplishments during the 117th Congress, but he also used the Wednesday evening remarks to needle a few congressional Republicans.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., drew the most pointed presidential jabs, with Biden taking umbrage at her assertion that he was directly responsible for the 2020 overdose deaths of two young Michigan brothers.

“Well, the interesting thing: That fentanyl they took came during the last administration,” Biden said, referring to Donald Trump’s term.

But his criticism of Taylor Greene also featured a prediction that if the GOP runs more far-right candidates like MTG, as she is sometimes known, in safe House districts, more moderate Republican voters could switch parties.

“A little bit more Marjorie Taylor Greene and a few more, and you’re going to have a lot of Republicans running our way,” Biden said. “Isn’t she amazing? Whew. …”

Biden, who was a senator for decades, often mentions his “Republican friends” on Capitol Hill. He opted, however, against paying them a visit on Thursday.

If he had, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who gives Biden high marks on assisting Ukraine’s war with invading Russian forces but little else, said he would have asked, “Why is he doing so many things that make no sense?”

Biden, however, limited the visit to his allies. Applause could be heard as he entered and departed the Democratic lunch session.

Niels Lesniewski contributed reporting from Baltimore. Suzanne Monyak, Mary Ellen McIntire, Ryan Tarinelli and Avery Roe contributed from Washington.

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