President Biden’s reversal on a House Republican-led measure to kill the District of Columbia’s criminal justice overhaul last week exposed a White House struggling to figure out how to operate in a Washington where Republicans have partial control over the agenda.
Mr. Biden told senators that he would sign the resolution just weeks after the White House told lawmakers that the administration opposed it.
The White House, moving into a defensive crouch, insisted that the president’s stance wasn’t a reversal and that Mr. Biden always intended to let the process play out on Capitol Hill before making a final decision.
Dozens of House Democrats, believing Mr. Biden was leaning one way, cast their votes on the legislation last month before learning he was headed the other way.
Mr. Biden’s allies in the District were also incensed. Some called his stance a betrayal. One D.C.-based group said the president was embracing “the oppression, the disenfranchisement and the outright discrimination woven throughout our history.”
It was an unforced error for the team, said longtime Capitol Hill operatives.
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“They wound up delivering a haymaker to Congress, then punching themselves in the nose,” said Eric Ueland, who spent decades in senior positions on Capitol Hill before running the legislative affairs shop in the Trump White House. “There will always be people now on the Democratic side of the aisle up there who will ask each other, once the White House team has left the building, ‘Do we know for sure that’s truly the president’s position?’”
The House legislation proposes to overturn the District’s new criminal code, which reduces maximum sentences for many major crimes.
Supporters call it a long-overdue rewrite of a century-old code that aligns criminal sentencing closer to current judges’ decisions. Opponents say it sends the wrong message at a time of surging crime in the city.
The Constitution gives Congress ultimate power over the District. Under the Home Rule Act, Capitol Hill retains a veto over city legislation. The new House Republican majority exercised that power by forcing a vote on a resolution to halt the rewritten criminal code. That measure passed by a 250-173 vote, with 31 Democrats joining Republicans.
Ahead of that vote, the White House Office of Management and Budget, the nerve center of the administration, issued a statement of policy opposing the resolution. The statement said the House proposal conflicted with Mr. Biden’s belief that the city should manage its own affairs.
Late last week, Mr. Biden told senators that he would sign the measure.
SEE ALSO: D.C. leaders lean too far left even for some Democrats
Legislative experts said either OMB erred by firing off its statement without checking with the president or someone had a change of heart.
“It makes you wonder who is actually in charge in the West Wing,” one former OMB staffer said.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre rebutted that suggestion.
“There was never a change of heart,” she said.
She acknowledged that OMB said the president opposed the resolution, but she said that statement didn’t include a veto threat.
“We never laid out where the president was going to go once it came to his desk because we wanted to allow Congress to move forward in a way that they normally do with the mechanism when a piece of legislation moves forward,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said. “Now that we know that this legislation is going to be at the president’s desk, we’re making [it] very clear and communicating where the president is on this legislation.”
Mr. Ueland, now a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, said the White House operation seems off-kilter as it deals with a Washington where Democrats aren’t in total control.
“They slipped into the easy familiarity of [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi solving all their problems for them over the last two years, so legislative affairs consisted of trudging up to the Hill and hearing what the former speaker had to say and adapting their perspective to her guidance,” he said. “Now they need to act independently, and they are subsuming a lot of their policy calls into the political agenda.”
Indeed, Mrs. Pelosi dinged the White House.
“If he was going to do it, I wish he would have told us first because this was a hard vote for the House members,” the California Democrat said during an event Friday at the University of Chicago.
Russ Vought, who served as director of the OMB in the Trump administration, said the bungle exposed a rift inside the White House operation.
“Sad for the institution!” he tweeted. “Weakens it.”
OMB also stumbled in January when it issued its first policy statement on a House Republican bill to revoke tens of billions of additional dollars for the IRS. The statement went beyond the usual policy analysis by mocking Republicans as sycophants who wanted to enable the wealthy to “skip out on their taxes.”
That statement contained Mr. Biden’s first veto threat.
The president has followed up with three more veto threats: two on legislation to end coronavirus emergency policies and one to impose conditions on Mr. Biden’s ability to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve until the administration delivers a plan for boosting U.S. energy production.
The Biden OMB has issued three policy statements this year opposing House Republican bills but not directly threatening a veto.
The resolution on the D.C. crime legislation was one of those. It was tied with another piece of legislation that would overturn the District’s new ordinance allowing noncitizens to cast ballots in city elections.
The White House is betting that voters don’t care about the messy operations and frayed relationships with Capitol Hill and will reward the president for taking a tough approach to crime.
When a reporter said most Americans are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of statements of administration policy, Ms. Jean-Pierre laughed and nodded. “I’m pretty sure they’re not,” she said.