An obscure parliamentary snafu has stymied Democrats’ aggressive efforts to extend Violence Against Women Act protections to same-sex couples, illegal immigrants, and tribal communities, and provided the GOP leverage to keep those provisions out of legislation to reauthorize that law.
It has been weeks since Senate Democrats — and several Republicans — passed VAWA legislation, and left House Republicans in the tough position of arguing that the law’s scope should not be explicitly widened. Last week House Republicans passed a narrower reauthorization bill, which the White House has threatened to veto, giving Dems what they believed to be an upper hand.
Typically, this ordering of events would give Democrats a great deal of leverage over Republicans, and possibly force them to agree to provisions that would alienate GOP voters by benefiting constituencies the base is hostile to.
“The House Republicans passed a bill that takes us backward in terms of protections for women,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared Thursday.
But instead of walking away with wins for gay, immigrant, and native American communities, or of messaging against GOP holding up VAWA, they hit a snag.
“The Senate’s passed a bill, but they haven’t sent it over because it has a blue slip problem,” said House Speaker John Boehner at a Thursday press conference. “Our bill’s over there. It’ll be up I think to the Senate to request a conference.”
He’s referring to an obscure practice the House uses to kill Senate-originated legislation, if the measure raises revenue. The Constitution’s Origination Clause requires revenue raising bills to have their first reading in the House — not the Senate. A provision in the Senate’s VAWA bill generates revenue by imposing a fee for visas that go to immigrant victims of domestic abuse.
Normally, the Senate can work around this requirement by amending House bills or by using House-passed revenue bills as vehicles for their own legislation. Senate Dems didn’t regard the visa fee as a revenue provision and have thus fallen into a trap. For all intents and purposes they don’t have a bill to bring to a conference committee with House Republicans. They can and may attempt to relegislate VAWA in a way that fulfills the origination requirements — but out of deference to Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could significantly delay or completely block such an effort.
Alternatively, as a top Senate Democratic aide pointed out, House Republicans could simply drop their blue-slip threat, as they did for recent transportation legislation. But Boehner’s not likely to agree to that unless Democrats give up something in return — and at the expense of key Democratic constituencies.
“We’re eager to resolve our differences between the House and Senate on the issue of domestic violence,” Boehner said. “I think the bigger issue is whether Senator Schumer and his Democrat allies in the Senate want to come to an agreement on this bill, or whether they want to continue to attempt to use it as a political weapon in this year’s election cycle.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.