WASHINGTON — President Biden told Senate Democrats on Thursday that he would not stand in the way of a Republican-led proposal to block a new criminal code for the District of Columbia, according to senators who attended a private luncheon with him in the Capitol.
With a floor showdown expected next week, Mr. Biden told the lawmakers during a visit to Capitol Hill that if the proposal to block the contentious, recently enacted local sentencing law reached his desk, he would sign it.
“He said that very clearly, and we heard that loud and clear,” said Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia and the only member of his party in the Senate so far to take a public position in support of upending the District statute.
The rewrite of the local criminal code has come under fire because it lowered or eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for such high-profile crimes as carjacking at a time when local residents have experienced a wave of such offenses. Given the power of Congress to review all District laws, Republicans took aim at the code as a way to box in congressional Democrats on violent crime.
Dozens of Democrats backed the proposal in the House, and momentum appeared to be building in favor in the other chamber as well. Crime is resonating as a political issue around the country, as illustrated most recently in Chicago’s mayoral race, where Lori Lightfoot lost her re-election bid this week amid widespread dissatisfaction over her handling of crime and policing.
Mr. Biden’s decision was a blow to home rule in the District of Columbia and the issue is likely not the last time Republicans challenge local laws in the heavily Democratic capital city. Republicans pointed to the decision by Mayor Muriel Bowser to veto the law, though she was later overridden by the District council.
“First rule of politics,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “Don’t get to the left of D.C.’s mayor.”
The growing support for the legislation in the Senate meant that Mr. Biden risked having his veto overridden after a politically painful debate over crime that many Democrats would rather avoid.