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White House faces blowback from House Democrats over mixed messages on key issues

<i>Joe Daniel Price/Moment RF/Getty Images</i><br/>The White House faces blowback from House Democrats over mixed messages on key issues.
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Joe Daniel Price/Moment RF/Getty Images
The White House faces blowback from House Democrats over mixed messages on key issues.

By Manu Raju, Melanie Zanona and Annie Grayer, CNN

House Democrats are delivering a blunt message to the White House: Stop blindsiding us.

In two embarrassing episodes in just the past month alone, House Democrats were aghast as they watched the White House send mixed messages to Congress on key issues — and ended up leaving them in a lurch.

The White House issued statements earlier this year that stopped short of a veto threat, but said that President Joe Biden “opposes” GOP-led efforts to scrap the District of Columbia’s new crime law and to officially end the designation that the United States remains in a Covid-19 public health emergency.

When the House voted last month on both issues, Democrats largely fell in line and sided with the White House.

Yet before the Senate voted this month, the White House changed its tune and indicated that Biden would sign those GOP measures into law, effectively giving ammunition to Republicans to paint House Democrats as out of the mainstream on the hot-button issues of crime and Covid.

“Definitely,” Rep. Dan Kildee, who voted against both GOP resolutions and represents a swing Michigan district, said when asked if there’s frustration with the White House.

Both administration statements, he said, “lacked enough clarity that it gave them a chance to reverse course after the House votes, and we don’t want to go through that again.”

“I can handle any policy position that they take,” Kildee told CNN. “Because sometimes, most of the time, I’m with them, but when I’m not, I’m not. … But none of that excuses the lack of clarity, or putting us in a position where we vote, and then there’s a change of heart. That’s very unhelpful.”

Many Democrats agree.

“If someone said, ‘This is my strongly held opinion. I hope you all are aligned with my strongly held opinion.’ And then a month later says: ‘Never mind, not my strongly held opinion’ … it’s not great,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat who represents a swing Virginia district and voted against the Republican bill to kill the DC crime law but supported ending the Covid-19 emergency. She implored the White House to “just be very clear” with whatever position Biden takes.

Republicans are already seizing on the tough votes. The House GOP’s campaign arm has launched two rounds of campaign ads hammering vulnerable Democrats as “soft on crime” over their vote to uphold the DC crime legislation, including a new billboard ad launched this week targeting Spanberger and several other House Democrats. And the GOP’s campaign committee also sent out dozens of press releases spotlighting the Democrats who voted against the Covid resolution, painting them as “too extreme for Biden.”

The consternation comes as House Republicans are pressing ahead on a new effort to target DC: This time over a law to overhaul policing practices in the district. Republicans say the plan is an attack on police officers, while Democrats say that the measure is consistent with the White House’s own positions against some brutal tactics, such as calling for a ban on the use of chokeholds.

The leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada, told CNN that he urged Biden in Las Vegas to come out and issue a veto threat against the Republican plan — a message he said he has reiterated with multiple White House officials, including chief of staff Jeff Zients to ensure “there’s no ambiguity.”

“We’re not asking them to do anything but uphold their current position, because, again, instead of them working to solve this problem with us, Republicans are trying to bring a bill to divide us,” Horsford said.

Heeding that demand, the White House made clear Thursday it would not sign the GOP resolution into law if it reached Biden’s desk.

“So, while he does not support every provision in the D.C. policing bill, he will not support congressional Republicans’ efforts to overturn commonsense police reforms such as: banning chokeholds; limiting use of force and deadly force; requiring the timely release of body-worn camera footage; and requiring officer training on de-escalation and use of force,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement. “Congress should respect D.C.’s right to pass measures that improve public safety and public trust. The president will veto this resolution if it reaches his desk.”

New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House Democratic leader, told CNN that he believes the White House will stay true to its word.

“I trust the White House on this issue,” Jeffries said, while earlier telling reporters that the White House has “kept its word” when it says Biden will veto legislation.

“And as far as I’m concerned, that is the most important marker of communication,” Jeffries said.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre offered no regrets for the White House’s previous mixed messages, arguing that their statements of administration policy, known as a SAP, never explicitly issued a veto threat.

“Nothing has changed here,” she said of the Covid-19 measure. “We have been very consistent on this process. If the president was planning to veto this legislation, the SAP would have said so, that’s how SAPs work, that is incredibly consistent in that way. And certainly, members of Congress know that, they understand how that process works as well.”

Yet when the White House issued its position in January on ending the Covid-19 public emergency, the message was different. In the statement, the White House said enactment of the GOP resolution would be a “grave disservice” since it would cause an “abrupt” disruption and “wide-ranging chaos.” The White House urged Congress to side with the president’s plan to end the public health emergency in May — a timeline House Democrats had pushed Biden to announce ahead of the vote to help give them cover to vote against the Republican effort.

After the White House said it “strongly opposed” the plan, 197 House Democrats vote against it. But as it headed to Senate passage on Wednesday, the White House indicated that Biden would sign into law, despite his opposition.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat who voted to stop the DC crime law but opposed the GOP Covid-19 resolution, said she knows “there’s a lot of angst” in the caucus with the White House and that it’s been a “big point of contention,” though she contended she’s not upset since she said her views aren’t influenced by the administration’s statements.

“I certainly watched how agitated people got when they understood that the White House had changed their position,” said Slotkin, who’s running for Senate. “And you can understand, we’re all sort of working off the same sheet of music, usually.”

Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi told CNN: “The communication is not nearly as robust as it should be on an issue like this” between the Biden administration and House Democrats on what the president plans to veto.

But Thompson added: “It’s politics. Democrats eventually will work it out.”

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CNN’s Phil Mattingly and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.

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