Hakeem Jeffries Sides With Biden Over 'Rip Roarin Pissed' Members

President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D., N.Y.) / Getty Images
March 7, 2023

House Democrats are "rip roarin' pissed" at President Joe Biden after he flipped his stance to support a Republican bill blocking changes to Washington, D.C.'s criminal code. That didn't stop the Democrats' new leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), from defending Biden's about-face.

Asked during a Sunday CNN interview if Biden "pulled the rug out from under House Democrats" when he revealed he'd sign the Republican bill, Jeffries opted to side with the president, saying, "Not at all." The answer puts Jeffries at odds with his members, many of whom attacked Biden for flip-flopping on the legislation, which would block D.C. from lowering penalties for carjackings, illegal gun possession, and other crimes. Biden signaled his opposition to the bill in a February statement—prompting at least 14 vulnerable House Democrats to vote against it—only to reverse his position weeks after the vote.

Now, those vulnerable members will almost certainly be subject to soft-on-crime attack ads from Republicans, a fate they could have avoided had Biden relayed his position before the vote. "People are rip roarin' pissed," one House Democrat told Axios. Biden "is going to have a much harder time asking people to take tough votes after this."

Biden used his eventual support for the Republican bill to portray himself as tough on crime, a tactic that comes as Republicans across the country hammer him for rising violent crime rates. Biden's desire to beat back those attacks apparently outweighed his longstanding support for D.C. statehood and home rule, which would allow the city to pass laws without congressional input. During his 2020 campaign, Biden said he's supported D.C. statehood "for the last 28 years," and the Democrat's administration a year later urged Congress to "provide for a swift and orderly transition to statehood." "This taxation without representation and denial of self-governance," the administration wrote at the time, "is an affront to the democratic values on which our nation was founded."

While Jeffries opted to defend Biden's handling of the bill, his members are already feeling the heat from their Republican counterparts over their decision to honor the president's pre-vote position. The National Republican Congressional Committee last week singled out swing-district House Democrats who voted against the crime measure, arguing that the vote proves those members "represent the extreme pro-crime fringe of [their] party." Targets included Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger (Va.), Gabe Vasquez (N.M.), Susan Wild (Pa.), and Steven Horsford (Nev.), all of whom voted to "coddle violent criminals," a move their constituents "will be hearing about … over and over again," the committee said.

Jeffries, who did not return a request for comment, didn't just alienate swing-district House Democrats by defending Biden. The caucus's progressive wing also blasted the president for siding with Republicans on criminal justice reform and refusing to allow D.C. to "conduct its own business." "It's actually very infuriating that the president did that," Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D., N.Y.) told Insider. "If the president supports D.C. statehood, he should govern like it," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) added in a Thursday tweet.

Biden's pledge to sign a bill overturning the D.C. criminal code changes prompted the city council on Monday to withdraw those changes, a decision council chairman Phil Mendelson (D.) said was aimed at "lowering the heat and lowering the rhetoric." Senate Republicans, however, dismissed Mendelson's actions and said they're moving forward with their own vote to block the new criminal code, which the D.C. Council passed in November.

"No matter how hard they try, the council cannot avoid accountability for passing this disastrous, dangerous D.C. soft-on-crime bill that will make residents and visitors less safe," Sen. Bill Hagerty (R., Tenn.) said in a statement.