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Why Biden backed a GOP-led push to reject D.C.’s new criminal code

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The Senate on Wednesday voted to block Washington, D.C., from enacting a sweeping revision of the city’s criminal code, with 33 Democrats joining a Republican-led push to override the District of Columbia City Council’s plan.

The disapproval bill, which was passed in the House of Representatives last month, marks the first time in more than 30 years that Congress has exercised its power to override a decision by local leaders in the nation’s capital.

Disagreement over the proposed reforms has divided Democrats. Moderates want to squash a bill they argue will make the city less safe. Progressives, meanwhile, criticize both the decision to reject what they view are commonsense changes, as well as Congress’s violation of D.C.’s right to govern itself. Those complaints became especially heated last week, when President Biden announced he would not use his veto power to prevent Congress from intervening, despite previously saying he disagreed with the effort and his long-standing support for making D.C. a state.

D.C. leaders spent more than a decade putting together a plan to revise the city’s criminal code, which hadn’t been comprehensively updated since 1901. Much of the final 450-page proposal involved throwing out outdated laws — including a centuries-old provision that bans women from being a “common scold” — and clarifying more relevant criminal statutes that were considered to be confusing, contradictory and difficult to enforce.

The proposal also called for eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all crimes except for murder and reducing maximum penalties on some crimes, including carjacking and robbery. Opposition to those provisions prompted D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to veto the plan, but the City Council overrode her decision — setting the stage for Congress to step in.

Why there’s debate

Many left-leaning Democrats have criticized their moderate colleagues and the president for, in their view, caving to Republican misrepresentations of what is in the crime bill out of fear of being labeled as “soft on crime.” They argue that the party’s tendency to cower to the GOP’s bad-faith attacks on crime over the decades not only alienates minority voters, but has also doomed the chances that the country can have a fairer, less punitive criminal justice system.

Others say the merits of the crime bill itself are less important than what it means for Biden to allow Congress to overrule the will of D.C.’s representatives. They argue that the city’s 700,000 residents are entitled to govern themselves and that the president betrayed his promises to them by abandoning his support for their autonomy when it became politically expedient.

Conservatives in Congress argue that it’s their Constitutionally granted duty to step in when the leadership in the nation’s capital pursues dangerous policies. Some say the crime bill offers a potent argument for why D.C. shouldn’t be made a state with powers of self-government. Some moderates say that the move to block the new criminal code was a smart political choice for Democrats, whom they believe will have to be able to counterattacks from the GOP about their stance on crime if they want to control Congress and retain the presidency after the 2024 election.

What’s next

The chairman of the D.C. City Council said Wednesday that he and his colleagues will “continue to work” to revise the city’s criminal code. Mayor Bowser is reportedly urging the Council to get rid of some of the more controversial elements of the original plan, to keep Congress from intervening again.

Perspectives

Congress just dealt a major blow to democracy in the nation’s capital

“If Democrats really believed in D.C. home rule, they would not be debating the merits of this bill at all, leaving such decisions to the people of D.C. and our elected officials. For cynical political reasons, many party members—including the president—have decided instead to side with the bad faith efforts of Republicans to meddle in the District’s affairs.” — Mark Joseph Stern, Slate

The crime bill mess shows that D.C. is incapable of governing itself

“Congress rarely strikes down D.C. laws, but it has an obligation to overturn crazy progressive ideas that make the district more dangerous. … Mark it down as one more reason not to make the district the 51st state.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Democrats will lose in 2024 if they betray their promises to minority voters

“Remember this the next time the White House inevitably touts its record with Black voters. Politically, this move is self-injurious — for Biden, who is considering a run for re-election, and for the Democratic Party generally. Morally, it’s straight-up shameful.” — Ja'han Jones, MSNBC

Senate Dems may be gaining by bucking progressives

“Republicans might unintentionally be solving as many problems for Democrats as they’re making. Despite the clear Senate floor schisms that the disapproval votes create, they also give Democrats some party-bucking bona fides that [is] otherwise rare in the Senate.” — Burgess Everett and Marianne Levine, Politico

Biden is repeating the same mistakes he made decades ago

“Biden will struggle to win next year if he’s not the best president he can be, and if he alienates core voters — like Black people who live in cities. When Biden ran in 2020, he essentially apologized to those voters for supporting the 1994 crime bill. At age 80, he might not be around to apologize for the results of this mistake — so why not avoid it in the first place?” — Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer

Democrats have to take every chance they get to counter the GOP’s crime attacks

“President Joe Biden gets it. Being seen as ‘soft on crime’ is the Achilles’ heel for Democrats — and he’s not going to let them deepen that negative association, even if it angers some progressives.” — John Avlon, CNN

Congress has an obligation to ensure that the nation’s capital is safe

“Ensuring the safety of the seat of government is the most basic reason why Congress has constitutional authority over the federal district. The dangerous law enacted by D.C.’s council is proof that Congress should not attempt to relinquish this authority.” — Editorial, National Review

The dream of D.C. statehood can’t happen if Democrats lose elections because of crime

“Biden’s decision, though not particularly principled, is smart strategy for him, Democrats, and the many humane and practical goals they hope to achieve. It means they may live to fight another day for an agenda that reflects my own dreams for my country. I can only hope that statehood is near the top and that this time it’s an action item—not an empty promise.” — Jill Lawrence, Bulwark

Biden has plenty to gain by showing he’s willing to defy the left flank of the Democratic Party

“[Biden’s] entire raison d’être is premised on being the one Democrat in America who can hold his own in middle America—and defeat Donald Trump. Supporting this GOP-led resolution against D.C.’s soft-on-crime crime bill only increases those odds.” — Matt Lewis, Daily Beast

The vote shows that any hopes of true reform in the U.S. are dead

“To be cynical about it, criminal-justice reform is a 2018 issue. For 2024, it’s all about being tough on crime.” — Ed Kilgore, New York

Democrats lose on crime because they’re too timid to stand behind a better vision for public safety

“The mistake that Democrats make is to give in to the lizard-brain instinct that President Biden reverted to yesterday, to double down on ‘tough on crime,’ and make their rhetoric indistinguishable from Republicans’ … It’s remarkable how much owning the issue, not being silent on it, and reminding people that we don’t have to choose between safety and justice can make a difference.” — Insha Rahman, criminal justice reform advocate, to Bloomberg

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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images, Getty Images (4)