When House Republican leaders unveiled their more modest version of the Violence Against Women Act last Friday, the plan was to pass their bill and go to conference with the Senate, which had passed a more expansive reauthorization. But they soon found themselves cornered, and decided to back down entirely.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), along with Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Tom Cole (R-OK), worked with advocates to forge a compromise between the warring factions. When that failed, Cantor sought to persuade conservatives of the need to let the Democrats’ version pass.
“Leadership was quite purposeful,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) told TPM. “They did not want this issue to hang longer than this week.”
The rollout of their legislation last Friday was a disaster. Women’s advocates and domestic violence groups immediately excoriated it. Democrats swiftly rejected it. The weeks-long effort to find a middle ground between them and the conservative wing of the GOP had failed.
Even worse: it soon became evident that not even all House conservatives were on board with the GOP’s more modest reforms to accommodate vulnerable populations like gays, illegal immigrants and Native Americans. Democrats would vote against it en masse, and some conservative members would join them. The GOP’s version would fail on the floor and create an embarrassment.
Republican leaders searched for an escape route. The VAWA struggle, which had lasted for a year, had dogged them enough. And even if their version passed, Senate Democrats weren’t budging. There was no endgame. And with sequestration on the horizon and bigger budget battles as far as the eye could see, it was time to move on.
A Rules Committee meeting Tuesday began late after leaders mapped out their plan of action. Rather than simply bring up the House version, they would bring it up with a caveat: if it failed, the Senate-passed version would get a vote. The plan was deliberate. GOP leaders knew their bill would fail, and that the Democrats’ version would pass. The committee approved it.
Democrats were caught off guard, but they immediately understood the implications of the move, and began to spread the word that victory was on the horizon. “We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, this is it,’” said a senior House Democratic aide.
Conservative members were angry. They didn’t want to have to vote on the Senate version of the bill and voiced their grievances during a private GOP conference meeting Tuesday. Leadership sought to placate their concerns by pointing out that the Republican version would not pass and the issue needed to be resolved. A faction of more moderate House Republicans backed them up, saying they preferred the Senate version and that it would lead to a quicker resolution.
“Cantor said repeatedly that the problem with this House alternative is we don’t have the votes,” a person in the room told TPM. “And I think it lost votes from those who are very conservative, and also they lost votes from the pragmatic Republicans. The Republican alternative was essentially defeated by the Democrats, pragmatic Republicans and conservative Republicans.”
Just nine Republicans voted against moving forward with the two-tier vote Wednesday. The following day, everything went according to plan, despite the protests of conservative activist groups like Heritage Action. The GOP’s version failed 166-257. The Democrats’ version passed 286-138, even as Republican members voted against it by a margin of 138-87. The legislation went straight to President Obama, who said he looked forward to signing it.
A Republican leadership aide conceded that Democrats had played hardball quite effectively throughout the battle. “We saw throughout this process that there were a lot of folks who would have liked to have a political issue rather than a bill,” the aide told TPM. “We wanted to move in December, but we were told by Senate Democrats the bill isn’t happening this year, that they wouldn’t work with us. But meanwhile they would continue attacking us for delaying the bill.”
Thursday afternoon, Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the author of VAWA, publicly praised Cole’s “steadfast dedication to help preserve the protections for Native women.” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) called Cole to thank him for helping pass the bill. Cole, a Native American, thanked her for championing protections for tribal women.
Cantor was the only member of Republican leadership who voted No on the final version, out of concerns with the constitutionality of provisions involving tribal lands. But that didn’t matter to Vice President Joe Biden, the author of the original 1994 VAWA, who recognized Cantor’s role in helping put the issue to rest, at long last.
“He kept his word. He said he’d let the Congress speak,” Biden said later that afternoon at a Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month event. “He could have prevented this from coming to a vote under the ordinary rules that had been employed in the past. But he didn’t. So … I want to publicly thank him — because he kept his word. Where I come from, your word matters.”
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.