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White House clarifies what policy statements do, and do not, mean

Some Democrats angry president won’t veto DC crime measure

Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary, conducts a press briefing on Nov. 22, 2022.
Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary, conducts a press briefing on Nov. 22, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected March 6 | In the days since an upbeat meeting with President Joe Biden at a party retreat in Baltimore, House Democrats have been expressing frustration with the White House over the president’s decision to sign legislation to overturn a rewrite of the local criminal code in Washington, D.C.

The Office of Management and Budget has issued a statement of administration policy expressing opposition to the disapproval measure ahead of a House vote on Feb. 9. The final vote of 250-173 included 31 “yeas” from Democrats, with one coming from Minnesota Rep. Angie Craig, who had been assaulted in her Washington apartment building that morning. Still, the 173 “no” votes from Democrats were enough to sustain a Biden veto, were one to materialize.

But the White House says that while the administration urged Congress not to pass the measure, there was no veto threat, real or implied. And on Friday, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was making clear that without explicit veto threats, no one should read administration policy statements as making any such threat.

“There was no veto threat in the SAP. There really wasn’t,” Jean-Pierre said. “It stated our support for D.C. statehood, but it did not indicate what the president would do should the bill come to the desk. It did not say that. It did not lay that out. Now we’re communicating that very clearly. We communicated with the House Democrats days ago when they were in Baltimore.”

That last point may technically be true, but that communication did not happen Wednesday while Biden was at an Inner Harbor hotel with House Democrats. The office of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton confirmed Friday that she learned from a press report that Biden planned to sign the resolution. Norton was clearly surprised Thursday when asked about the president’s announcement to Senate Democrats that he would not wield his veto pen.

A House leadership aide said that Democratic leadership received notification at the party’s issue conference in Baltimore while the president was already at the Thursday lunch with the Senate Democrats.

House Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., was among the members to express disappointment with the president’s decision to sign the measure, rather than adhering to the principle of D.C. home rule.

“I’m deeply disappointed to see the President announce he will allow Congress to overturn a D.C. law for the first time in decades. This is simple: The District of Columbia must be allowed to govern itself. Democrats’ commitment to home rule should apply regardless of the substance of the local legislation,” she said in a statement. “This is why the Congressional Progressive Caucus and its members have endorsed D.C. statehood, with every CPC member cosponsoring D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s bill in the 117th Congress.”

The resolution is now pending in the Senate, where Biden’s support may be spurring other Democrats to get behind the measure. Biden has cited Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto of the criminal code overhaul — which was overridden by the city council — as a reason he will sign the disapproval.

As for the art of crafting the statements from OMB, the Feb. 6 SAP expressing opposition to disapproval of D.C. Council legislation on both the criminal code and local voting rights for noncitizens focused on the Biden administration’s support for statehood and respect for home rule, but did not include traditional veto threat language.

Two kinds of threats

Typically, there are two kinds of veto threats that may appear in the statements. The most strident declares the president would veto a measure, while the less strident says that senior advisers would recommend he do so. The one in question on Feb. 6 here says neither.

Two scholars who have long tracked the use of the policy statements provided data on their usage in a December article for Presidential Studies Quarterly. Ian Ostrander of Michigan State and Joel Sievert of Texas Tech wrote that veto threats “dominate the rhetorical content” of the statements when the government features divided control.

“Well over three-quarters of G. W. Bush’s SAPs in his last two years in office contained a veto threat, as compared to between roughly 15% and 30% in the prior six years. Both the Obama and Trump administrations also used SAPs primarily as a vehicle for veto threats after losing control of the House majority in the midterm election,” Orstrander and Sievert wrote.

Jean-Pierre said she would not speak to hypotheticals about future attempts by Congress to use the disapproval process for other D.C. Council actions. In the Senate, rules for considering the measures provide for an expedited process without the threat of a filibuster. But Jean-Pierre did suggest that there may be future cases where the president does not take a definitive position on legislation ahead of a first House vote.

“We always let … the process in Congress go through, right, whatever mechanism they take, however it moves forward,” Jean-Pierre said. “But as it now looks like it was going to come to his desk, we wanted to communicate where we were going to go. We wanted to communicate how the president was going to move forward with — with this particular bill. And we did.”

That strategy, however, could leave the House Democratic minority exposed. With no advance statement, party leaders would not know if they need to whip votes to at least muster enough opposition to GOP measures to assure a presidential veto would be sustained.

The Feb. 9 House vote party breakdown link and description were corrected in this report.

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