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House Renews Violence Against Women Act, But Senate Hurdles Remain

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leads a 2019 press conference with fellow Democrats in support of the Violence Against Women Act.
J. Scott Applewhite
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leads a 2019 press conference with fellow Democrats in support of the Violence Against Women Act.

Updated at 7:13 p.m. ET

The House approved with bipartisan support a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, a popular 1994 law that protects and provides resources for victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence. The measure passed 244-172.

As a senator, President Biden played a lead role in passing the landmark law, which he recently called "one of my proudest legislative achievements."

The law was last reauthorized in 2013, but it lapsed at the end of 2018 after Congress failed to act due to partisan disputes over guns and transgender issues. The lapse has had little practical effect because Congress continues to fund related programs despite the lack of authorization.

The core legislation has broad support, but certain provisions added to the bill in the previous Congress exposed divisions among Republicans. In 2019, the House passed the measure with 33 Republicans voting with Democrats, but it was never brought up in the then-GOP-led Senate.

In a statement Wednesday evening, Biden said "writing and passing VAWA is one of the legislative accomplishments of which I'm most proud," and urged the Senate to follow suit.

"This should not be a Democratic or Republican issue — it's about standing up against the abuse of power and preventing violence," he said.

A number of Republican senators said this week they are working on finding a bipartisan compromise that can pass the now-Democratic-controlled chamber. "I think it's fair to say that there is a good strong interest in trying to advance VAWA," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

The most contentious issue in the House-passed bill is a provision that expands the criminal threshold to bar an individual from buying a gun to include misdemeanor convictions of domestic abuse or stalking. It would also close the so-called boyfriend loophole to expand the definition of who is affected by existing gun prohibitions to include dating partners. "This legislation makes it clear that Democrats consider gun ownership a second-class right," said Rep. Bob Good, R-Va.

In 2019, the National Rifle Association opposed the legislation for the first time, which put GOP lawmakers in a tough political position of voting against a popular law to support victims of domestic and sexual violence, or voting against the gun lobby. The NRA continues to oppose the legislation because of the gun provisions.

"The NRA did not score the legislation until last Congress because it never impacted Second Amendment rights," said Jason Ouimet, executive director of the NRA's lobbying arm. "However, Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and anti-gun lawmakers chose to insert gun control provisions into this bill in 2019 to pit pro-gun lawmakers against it so that they can falsely and maliciously claim these lawmakers don't care about women."

The House-passed bill would also strengthen existing protections for transgender women to access women's shelters and serve in prisons that match their gender identity.

VAWA advocates say the gun and transgender provisions are necessary to protect victims. "Everything that we advocate for in VAWA is based on the reality of what we know victims are being subjected to, and what we know survivors need to seek safety, accountability, healing," Jennifer Becker, deputy legal director of Legal Momentum, the oldest legal advocacy group for women in the country, told NPR. "These provisions are central to ensuring that people stay alive," she said.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., the lead Republican sponsor of the legislation, echoed that sentiment and said the updated version of the law "addresses the challenges identified by survivors and by domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, and other organizations that serve survivors."

Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the House Rules Committee, supports the legislation but called the provisions "unnecessarily partisan" and said they could once again block its reauthorization. "The last time we adopted this course of action, frankly, the legislation was never enacted into law, and I am afraid we are running that risk again." Cole voted in favor of the bill because it provides critical assistance to the Native American communities in his state.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, is taking the lead on crafting the Senate GOP's counterproposal to the House bill. "What we're hoping to show is that we have enough Republican support on our bill, and that we're willing to work with Democrats on this, and hopefully, by combining forces we can come up with the 60 votes needed, and pass a good modernized bill that will work for the Senate," she said Tuesday.

However, Ernst indicated the gun provisions would be a problem in the Senate. "That's a big one for a number of us, some stripping away of people's constitutional rights is not something that we should be doing," she said, "So why don't we just kind of backtrack a little bit and figure out where we can agree?"

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters Tuesday that VAWA would get a vote in the Senate. "We're ready to move," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
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