WASHINGTON — President Biden told Senate Democrats Thursday that he will sign pending legislation that would override Washington DC’s new criminal code that lowers the maximum penalties for carjacking and some gun crimes.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed at her regular briefing that Biden told senators at a caucus lunch that he would sign the legislation.

“The president doesn’t support changes like lowering penalties for carjacking,” Jean-Pierre said. “He believes, you know, this is a way for him to keep the community safe in DC.”

The District’s rewrite would lower the max sentence for carjacking from 21 years — 40 if armed with a gun — to 18 years, or 24 if armed. The max for armed robbery would be reduced from 45 years to 20 years.

The White House previously said it opposed the legislation authored by Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) and Jean-Pierre denied that the pivot was to aid vulnerable Democratic senators ahead of the 2024 election.

The House voted 250-173 last month to override the DC law, with 31 Democrats joining all Republicans voting in favor.

Car thefts have increased in DC in recent years.

Resolutions that override DC laws require a simple majority in the Senate, rather than the 60-vote supermajority needed for most legislation, making passage likely if even a couple Democrats back the initiative. Democrats currently hold 51 seats of the Senate’s 100 seats.

“The reversal here comes in the wake of handful of senators facing reelection in 2024 saying that they were seriously considering supporting this legislation or planned to vote for it — Joe Manchin [of West Virginia], Jon Tester [of Montana], Bob Casey [of Pennsylvania] and Angus King [of Maine],” CBS’s Ed’ O’Keefe told Jean-Pierre.

“Some might look at this and say the president was choosing to give political air cover to vulnerable Democrats in 2024,” O’Keefe added. “So is the president playing 2024 politics with this local Washington, DC issue at the expense of his long standing, decades-long support of DC statehood?”

Jean-Pierre replied the Biden “believes in making sure he continues to deliver for the American people.”

Although the DC councilmembers who approved the changes said they would reflect what sentences criminals already are receiving, Mayor Muriel Bowser and other local authorities protested it would remove the discretion of judges to throw the book at the worst offenders at a time when car thefts and murders are rising in the nation’s capital.

The bill “substantially reduced penalties for robberies, carjackings and home invasion burglaries. The higher penalties are not handed down for many offenders, but they are currently available to judges for repeat violent offenders committing the most heinous versions of these crimes,” Bowser wrote in January, when she vetoed the changes.

President Joe Biden speaks to reporters at the Capitol on March 2, 2023.
President Biden said he’d override the local DC law during a visit to the Capitol.

The local bill also “reduces sentences for illegally carrying a gun on our streets,” the mayor wrote. “In particular, felons in possession of a gun pose a danger to our communities … for arrestees in possession of a gun with previous convictions for violent crimes, the Council reduced the maximum penalty from 15 years down to just four years.”

The DC Council overrode Bowser’s veto, putting the legislation before Congress for review since the District lacks the autonomy to make its own laws without federal supervision.

Most Democrats in Congress still oppose overriding the new code and Bowser has pleaded with Congress not to intervene.

Bowser tweeted last week, “I call on all senators who share a commitment to the basic democratic principles of self-determination and local control to vote ‘NO’ on any disapproval resolutions involving duly enacted laws of the District of Columbia.”

DC police statistics indicate there there were 1,161 car thefts from Jan. 1 through March 2, up 111% over the same period last year. In all of 2022, there were 3,761 stolen cars, up 8% from the previous year. Murders were up 37% as of March 2, after the annual number of killings fell 10% last year.