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House Democrats unhappy with White House handling of D.C.'s new criminal code

A seemingly abrupt decision by President Joe Biden not to veto a bill that would block Washington, D.C.'s new criminal code has left House Democrats and their staff frustrated by what they view as poor coordination and communication from the White House.

The president told Democratic senators about his decision during a lunch on Capitol Hill Thursday, and his staff notified House Democratic leadership staff at approximately the same time — even though the president had just spent the prior evening with House Democrats. 

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents Washington, D.C., as a nonvoting delegate, only found out about Mr. Biden's decision when reporters asked her about the his remarks during a press briefing with the Congressional Black Caucus during the Democratic retreat.

"This is news to me," she responded Thursday. "And I'm very disappointed in it."

Asked about the timing of the notification at a briefing Friday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters, "The White House notified the members at the House retreat that was earlier this week." 

But two House leadership aides told CBS News that that while the notification did come during the retreat, the White House notified Democratic leadership only as Mr. Biden was walking into the lunch where he informed senators, and while House lawmakers were dispersed, attending meetings and speaking at press conferences at their retreat. The night before, Mr. Biden delivered a speech at the retreat, and he spent an hour talking to members privately behind closed doors, but he did not reveal his plans for the D.C. criminal code. 

Last month, the House passed the resolution to block the bill adopted by the D.C. City Council that would overhaul the District's criminal code. Thirty-one Democrats joined all the House Republicans in the vote, and the Senate has yet to take up the measure but is expected to soon. The president's statement could encourage more Senate Democrats to vote in favor of blocking the bill.

The House and Senate can overturn legislation passed by the D.C. City Council within a certain review period. Democratic lawmakers who oppose the disapproval resolution have argued that Congress should not overturn the will of the elected representatives of the district, and point to the episode as an argument in favor of granting D.C. statehood. If the resolution passes the Senate and is signed by the president, it would be the first time that Congress blocked a D.C. law in over 30 years. 

The proposed changes to the D.C. criminal code would lower the maximum prison sentences for some crimes, while increasing punishments for others and eliminating many mandatory minimum sentences. In January, the Washington Post Editorial Board predicted that the District of Columbia "could become a more dangerous city" if the City Council's criminal code were to be adopted. The board criticized the code because it would decrease punishment "for violent crimes such as carjackings, home invasion burglaries, robberies and even homicides."

Supporters of the measure argue that the code unfairly penalizes Black Americans, who are convicted of violent crimes at disproportionate rates. 

 D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the changes to the criminal code, but the City Council overrode her veto. 

When the Republican-controlled House passed the resolution to overturn the criminal code, the 31 Democrats who voted with Republicans to support the bill may have been joined by more Democrats. But House Democratic leaders had watched the vote carefully to ensure that there wouldn't be enough votes to override a presidential veto, since the administration had released a statement days earlier saying it opposed the bill. 

Holmes Norton, an ardent advocate of D.C. statehood, defended the changes as "extraordinarily important" because the city's criminal code has not been updated in more than 120 years. 

"I really can't understand why they are so controversial, because the code, the new code, raises penalties on some crimes, but it lowers penalties on others. That's based on experience. And that should be left to the District of Columbia, which has lived this experience," she said.

Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington, who on Thursday praised the work the administration had done to build a strong partnership with the left, issued a statement Friday saying she was "deeply disappointed" by the president's decision.

"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.

"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," the president tweeted Thursday. "If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I'll sign it."

Zachary Hudak contributed to this report.

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