The Violence Against Women Act’s Long Road To Oblivion

January 3, 2013 10:55 a.m.

The Violence Against Women Act first became law in 1994 and has since been routinely reauthorized without controversy. By providing resources for law enforcement to combat spousal abuse, it has protected countless women from domestic violence.

But the 2012 re-authorization, like many initiatives of the just-concluded Congress, fell prey to House Republican resistance — in this case, to expanding the Act to cover more women. In the end, House GOP leaders refused bring to a vote a bill that passed the Senate with a bipartisan supermajority.

“The House Republican leadership’s failure to take up and pass the Senate’s bipartisan and inclusive VAWA bill is inexcusable,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), a Democratic leadership member, told TPM. “This is a bill that passed with 68 votes in the Senate and that extends the bill’s protections to 30 million more women. But this seems to be how House Republican leadership operates. No matter how broad the bipartisan support, no matter who gets hurt in the process, the politics of the right wing of their party always comes first.”

A Republican source familiar with failed last-minute negotiations to save the measure between Vice President Joe Biden and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) disputed that view. The source blamed Senate Democrats for making a resolution impossible by “constantly shifting the goalposts” and adopting a “my way or the highway approach.”The battle began last spring in the Senate. Democrats introduced a re-authorization — written with input from law enforcement and anti-domestic-violence advocates — with expanded provisions to protect victims even if they’re gay, illegal immigrants or Native Americans living in tribal jurisdictions. Republicans balked, demanding those additions be stripped out and introducing a competing version that omitted them.

But Senate Democrats peeled off enough Republicans for the new provisions. In April, they passed the expanded version by a whopping 68-31 vote, winning over 8 Republicans.

The legislation then moved to the House, where Republican leaders faced pressure to act, but had no intention of supporting the added provisions. So they introduced a scaled-back version that omitted them and made it harder for illegal-immigrant victims of domestic violence to obtain legal status under a special category called the U Visa.

Republican leaders deployed their female members to make the case for it, notably Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA), a leadership member, and Rep. Sandy Adams (FL), herself a victim of domestic violence. Over the objections of some advocates for abused victims, but with the support of a so-called men’s rights group, House GOP leaders passed their version on a partisan vote, despite a White House veto threat.

And that’s when the legislation stalled, never to recover.

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) invited the Senate to go to conference to resolve the differences. He also argued that the Senate bill was unconstitutional because it would raise new revenue with visa fees (bills with revenues are supposed to originate in the House, though leaders can dodge that problem if they want to). Republicans also said provisions involving tribal jurisdiction were constitutionally impermissible.

Democrats demanded that the GOP take up the Senate version, comparing its strong bipartisan support with the lack of cross-party appeal for the scaled-back re-authorization, and citing President Obama’s veto threat. Boehner stonewalled. The stalemate deepened.

A bipartisan letter authored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the lead author of VAWA, and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), a co-sponsor, urging Boehner to accept the Senate bill had no impact. Months later, a large House coalition including 10 Republican members pushed him to accept a Senate-like version — again, to no avail.

In December, there was a glimmer of hope for the measure when Biden, the chief architect of the original VAWA, entered negotiations with Cantor to see if they could resolve the disputes. But that, too, went nowhere.

A top Senate Democratic aide said Cantor refused to budge on the LGBT, undocumented immigrant and especially tribal jurisdiction provisions. A GOP source familiar with the negotiations countered that the vice president showed “good faith” but Senate Democrats kept throwing up “roadblock after roadblock” and showed no interest in compromising.

“The vice president showed good faith, but for Senate Democrats it was ‘my way or the highway,'” the GOP source said, pointing to a letter from an anti-domestic-violence group applauding Cantor’s efforts to find a solution. “Democrats made clear they were more interested in protecting a political issue than protecting women from domestic violence.”

The 112th Congress ended Thursday, and the Violence Against Women Act perished with it. The new Congress now has to start all over. A spokesperson said Leahy was disappointed by the failure of VAWA re-authorization and looks forward to soon reintroducing an “inclusive, bipartisan bill covering vulnerable victims.”

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