House passes Violence Against Women Act, grudgingly

The Violence Against Women Act breezed through the Congress in previous years, but it's suddenly a heavy lift. The GOP House passed its version of the bill on a largely party-line vote, but getting to yes with the Senate will be tough.

Rep. Gwen Moore (D) of Wisconsin recounts her own history of being sexually assaulted as a child, then raped as a young woman, at a press conference on Capitol Hill to push for an unrestricted reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act on May 16.

A day of dramatic, emotional debate in the House of Representatives gave way to a narrow but largely partisan vote to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act on Wednesday.

VAWA, passing 222-205 with 23 Republicans in opposition and six Democrats in favor, will now join another once-uncontroversial measure – the transportation bill – in a conference committee between the two chambers.

The act provides some $660 million in funding over five years for programs ranging from protecting victims of domestic violence and community violence prevention to legal aid for survivors of violence.  Historically a light political lift, VAWA breezed through Congress in its two prior reauthorizations.

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But just like the 2012 transportation bill, a bipartisan measure passed first in the Senate was initially blocked by House Republican leaders – and bitter partisan rancor followed.

Democrats said the GOP’s bill – which removed Senate-passed provisions relating to extending protections to Native Americans, lesbian, gay, and transgender Americans and illegal immigrants – showed a shocking lack of concern on the part of House Republicans.

“The indifference in this bill toward some, just some, is as chilling and callous as anything I have seen come before this Congress in modern times,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) of New York at a press conference Wednesday. “Do they not bleed, and bruise, and are injured just as much as anyone else?”

Republicans accused Democrats of using the bill to back their claim that Republicans were waging a “war on women.”

“Can we stop the election-year gimmicks? Can we stop these manufactured wars that pit one group of Americans against another group of Americans?” thundered freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina on the House floor Wednesday.

The White House, for its part, supports the Senate measure and said it would veto the House bill because the measure “rolls back existing law and removes long-standing protections for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault – crimes that predominantly affect women.”

The House and Senate versions of VAWA have several key differences:

  • The Senate adds language that explicitly mentions gay and transgender Americans for protection, while the House version is gender neutral. Republicans contend that their measure allows all Americans to receive protection because it does not specify who qualifies for various programs. Democrats, however, say that local law enforcement could use the lack of specificity to discriminate against gay or transgender people.
  •  The House bill does not include a Senate provision that would allow Native American women to take American citizens who abuse them to court within the tribal legal system. Republicans say that the Senate measure is unconstitutional and replace it with a proposal that allows Native American women to apply for protection orders from local US courts. Democrats contend that without the Senate’s proposals, Native American women abused on an Indian reservation are often left without legal recourse. 
  • The House bill does not allow for a path to citizenship for illegal women who have been abused and agree to cooperate with the police investigation of the crime. Moreover, it holds the cap on temporary visas offered to women cooperating in legal investigations to 10,000, below the Senate’s increased 15,000 level. Republicans say the citizenship provision is akin to amnesty for illegal immigrants. Democrats, on the other hand, say that women fearing deportation may never come forward to take abusers off the street under the House bill.

Perhaps emblematic of the highly partisan atmosphere around a bill that once enjoyed widespread agreement are freshman Rep. Sandy Adams (R) of Florida and Rep. Gwen Moore (D) of Wisconsin. Congresswoman Adams, the GOP bill’s sponsor, and Congresswoman Moore, who sponsored the House version of the Senate legislation, have heart-wrenching stories of their own experience with domestic violence and sexual assault, respectively. And both said the bill should not be subject to partisan political concerns. 

 So had the two women ever crossed the aisle to speak about  the bill?
“No,” Moore said.

After the vote, however, the two women embraced on the House floor.

Next, House and Senate negotiators must find a way to embrace a common version of the bill that can pass both the House and Senate.

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