Once again, House Republicans are in a predicament on the Violence Against Women Act. The legislation, aimed at combating domestic abuse, is political dynamite with women voters, and for that reason GOP leaders desperately want the issue off the table. But they can’t figure out how to make that happen now any more than they could last year, during an election.
House GOP leaders find themselves unable to appease simultaneously House conservatives and advocates against domestic violence. The two factions are at an impasse on new protections for gays, illegal immigrants and Native American women who suffer from domestic abuse. Anything that placates one side seems to aggravate the other. The legislation House Republicans unveiled Friday came after weeks of trying to resolve that tension, but fell short of the goal.
“Unfortunately, the National Task Force must oppose the House proposed VAWA legislation,” said the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, after the bill was released. “This legislation lacks necessary protections for victims of violence and rolls back current law. NTF supports efforts to move the House legislation closer to the inclusive, bipartisan Senate-passed bill.”
Women’s groups were even more emphatic in rejecting the GOP proposal. Terry O’Neill, the president of National Organization For Women, accused the GOP of resorting to their “ultra-conservative, anti-woman playbook yet again” and vowed that the party’s House majority “will be history in 2014” if they keep this up. EMILY’s List spokeswoman Jess McIntosh said it’s “amazing Republicans don’t understand what a loser their behavior is for voters.”
LGBT, Native American and undocumented women are not covered under the existing VAWA, which first passed in 1994 and was last reauthorized in 2005 without drama. Although VAWA expired in 2011, its programs remain funded through the appropriations process. Legislation that expands VAWA to protect those populations recently passed the Senate by a 78-22 vote, winning over even a majority of Republicans, including all women senators.
The House GOP’s version reflects an effort to move in that direction, after their VAWA bill last year neglected those populations entirely. Though advocates disagree, Republican leadership aides insist that their bill covers all women. Democrats aren’t budging because they believe they have the high ground, both on the substance and the politics.
That means the central disputes that sank VAWA last year are far from being resolved.
House Republicans intend to pass their bill this week, presumably on a party line vote. After that they’ll likely face two unenviable choices in conference committee negotiations with the Senate: agree to beef up their version, or let VAWA perish. The former option risks losing the support of conservatives. The latter could further tarnish their image with women voters.
“The House is expected to take up a strong Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization,” said Megan Whittemore, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), “so we can protect all women from acts of violence and help law enforcement prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law.”
The other route would be for Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to bring a Senate-like VAWA to the House floor and let it pass with mostly Democratic votes, along with the faction of House Republicans who are comfortable with the Senate version. It would upset conservatives but eliminate a no-win political issue. Twice this year, Boehner has brought legislation to the floor with the support of less than half his caucus.
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.