The Femo: House Republicans to determine fate of Violence Against Women Act

by Ashleigh McEvoy

On Feb. 12, the Senate voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act by a bipartisan majority of 78 to 22. Vice President Joe Biden spearheaded the original legislation, which was passed as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in September 1994. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act also included the much-discussed Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004.

In the nearly two decades since its passage, VAWA has been reauthorized twice — in 2000 and again in 2005. It expired a third time in September 2011, and Congress has since failed to produce a new bill. Although both chambers passed separate renewal bills last year, they were unable to come to a compromise, with conservatives in the House of Representatives contesting new provisions that would extend protections to immigrants, gays and lesbians, and Native Americans.

VAWA has been heralded as effective in reducing intimate-partner violence and calling attention to issues of sexual assault, stalking, dating violence, and domestic abuse. It strengthens law enforcement’s response to these types of violence, provides assistance services for survivors, funds prevention programs, and established the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. Though its name emphasizes the protections it affords women, the act also applies to male survivors of violence.

A main controversy in the reauthorization debate entails a provision that allows non-Native Americans accused of abusing Native Americans to be tried in tribal courts. Domestic violence is particularly rampant on Native American reservations and this would close a loophole that leaves survivors in limbo between local and tribal law enforcement. Opponents worry that this would strip defendants of their constitutional liberties and deny them criminal procedural protections as set out in the Bill of Rights. Conservatives have also expressed discomfort with extending the protections of VAWA to gay and lesbian persons, and they have contested giving immigrant survivors access to visas. This provision for immigrants was exempted from the recently passed Senate bill but may be included in an immigration reform bill later this spring.

Many had hoped that the House would be swayed by the Senate’s overwhelming passage of their version of the bill or by efforts to revamp their party’s image after a 2012 election loss that included accusations of a Republican war on women. On Feb. 14, the Huffington Post reported that Biden had been in communication with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — advocate and sponsor of the Senate’s bill — had appealed to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio). There has also been pressure from President Barack Obama, who mentioned VAWA in his most recent State of the Union speech and urged its passage.

Late last week, however, House leaders released their version of the bill, which omitted many of the new provisions supported by those on the left. Namely, the House bill will not include additional protections for gay and lesbian persons, and it will allow non-Native Americans to move their cases to a U.S. federal court if they feel that a tribal court is operating unfairly. The bill proceeds to the House Rules Committee on Tuesday and then to the floor.

Many on the Left have denounced the House’s proposal as partisan and inadequate. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) released a statement, declaring, “It’s not a compromise, it’s an unfortunate effort to exclude specific groups of women from receiving basic protections under the law. And we cannot allow that to happen. The House Republican leadership just doesn’t get it.” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) likened it to “partisan political football.” Sen. Leahy’s statement was equally critical: “This is simply unacceptable and it further demonstrates that Republicans in the House have not heard the message sent by the American people and reflected in the Senate’s overwhelming vote earlier this month to pass the bipartisan Leahy-Crapo bill. A majority of Republican senators — and every woman serving in the United States Senate — supported it.”

However, it remains to be seen whether the House Republicans will cede to this pressure and offer amendments that address the bill’s shortcomings. It will be interesting, too, to see how the looming sequester and expiration of the continuing resolution in March will inform and sharpen this partisan divide. In the meantime, the fates of millions of survivors of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault hang in the balance.


photo by Dave Newman: