Domestic violence law clears House, but some Republicans aren't happy

The Violence Against Women Act now goes to President Obama's desk, but a majority of Republicans in the House didn't back it. Some say the domestic violence law was flawed and rammed through by leadership.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, accompanied by fellow House Democrats, leads a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington earlier this year to discuss the reintroduction of the Violence Against Women Act. The domestic violence bill passed the House Thursday.

Last year, Republican concerns with the Violence Against Women Act were a primary exhibit in the Democrats’ argument that the GOP was waging a “war on women.”

This year, a nearly-identical bill will land on the president’s desk with wide bipartisan support in both chambers after the House passed the Senate’s version of the bill, known as VAWA, on Thursday.

What a difference an election – and President Obama’s commanding performance with female voters – makes.

“I am proud that such important legislation was reauthorized today with bipartisan support. Republicans remain committed to protecting all women against acts of domestic violence,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington, the House’s fourth-ranking Republican, in a statement.

“Today we must remember why this bill first passed almost 20 years ago,” said Representative McMorris Rodgers, whose elevation to leadership at the beginning of this Congress was widely seen as an acknowledgment by the GOP that it needed to up its appeal to women. “Protecting women was our first priority then, and it must be our first priority now.”

All 199 Democrats were joined by 87 Republicans in voting for the measure after a Republican alternative that gave weaker protections to American Indians, did not include policy changes to combat human trafficking, and gave less direct protection to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans, among other differences, came up short of the votes needed to pass. The Senate passed the legislation with a commanding 78 to 22 vote, including all Democrats and a majority of Senate Republicans.

In 2012, a similar bill passed the House 222 to 205 with 23 Republicans in opposition and six Democrats in favor and with similarly broad bipartisan appeal in the Senate.

However, that bill foundered when Republicans insisted that a procedural point made the Senate bill invalid. (Senate Democrats included a fee in their bill to pay for more visas for abused undocumented immigrants, violating the constitutional rule that all revenue measures have to originate in the House.) 

The two chambers never attempted to hammer out their differences in a bicameral committee and the bill died – except in the campaign rhetoric of Democrats.

This time, House Republicans, led by majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia, tried for weeks to craft a bill that could pass with solely Republican support. But because of issues relating to native Americans and the LGBT community, particularly, that consensus proved elusive and the House GOP bill failed to pass on Thursday.

That may have been a good thing, says Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma, one of two lawmakers of native American heritage, because it eliminates the need for a contentious conference committee between the House and Senate to hammer out a compromise – during which Democrats could have continued to hammer Republicans on the “war on women.”

“It’s not a partisan Democratic bill,” says Representative Cole of the Senate measure, which he voted for on Thursday. “I think a bipartisan solution for this actually speaks better for the Congress than a strict partisan bill that would probably push us into a conference that would be deadlocked for weeks.”

Republican opposition in the House included concerns that the bill was foisted onto the conference without going through the regular committee process and that the bill passed without a majority of House Republicans in support. The latter is something many believed Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio would refuse to do after the contentious "fiscal cliff" deal  passed with a paltry minority of Republicans.

Passing a bill that didn’t go through the committee process “is a huge concern,” said Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho on Wednesday. “I know there’s a lot of people who are upset about the process, not necessarily the language of the bill or anything like that. If eventually we get the Senate passed-bill, if that’s what happens after regular order, then that’s going to be the law of the land.”

Democrats, for their part, were ecstatic.

“For over 500 days women have been waiting and praying for this day to come,” said Rep. Gwen Moore (D) of Wisconsin, herself the survivor of a violent sexual assault. “Today, the majority of this body stood up for all women – including native, LGBT, and immigrant women. We answered their clarion call and declared that we will protect the victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and human trafficking.”

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