WASHINGTON — The House voted on Wednesday to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, legislation originally authored by then-Sen. Joe Biden in 1994 that aims to strengthen protections for women from domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.
The landmark law was reauthorized several times since, but lapsed in 2019 after the Democratic-controlled House voted to renew it, but it stalled in the Republican-led Senate. Democrats are hopeful it will find the support this time although the latest version still faces potential obstacles in the evenly-divided Senate.
The vote was 244-to-172, with 29 Republicans breaking ranks and joining Democrats in backing the reauthorization.
“We want women to live. We want victims of violence to live, men or women. We want children to be able to have a parent,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, at an earlier news conference with House Democrats where all the women wore white in honor of women’s suffrage.
Republican opposition to the bill revolves in part around closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” which adds dating partners and stalkers to the provision banning spouses of convicted domestic violence or abuse from owning firearms.
The National Rifle Association is opposed to the extending the ban, and Republicans have opposed the broader VAWA legislation over it, arguing that it is a ploy by Democrats to erode Second Amendment rights.
The bill also expands protections for Native American, transgender and immigrant women. Some Republicans voiced opposition to adding transgender women to the law.
“The most egregious provisions of this bill push leftist gender ideology at the expense of important protections for women’s privacy and security,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., who specifically referenced a requirement that women’s shelters take in transgender women.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., accused Republicans of supporting protecting women unless they “happen to be Native American or an LGBTQ woman or an immigrant women.”
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a survivor of sexual assault who led the Republican effort last time to offer a counter VAWA measure, said Republicans will be crafting their own version this time as well to indicate what they are willing to support.
“Certainly we ran into hiccups with some of the gun issues, and that’s a big one for a number of us, stripping away people’s constitutional rights is not something that we should be doing,” she said on Tuesday.
Democrats have blamed Republicans for failing to pass what has historically been an overwhelmingly bipartisan reauthorization. The last time the bill was reauthorized in 2013, 23 Republicans in the Senate and 87 Republicans in the GOP-controlled House voted for it.
“They apparently took the position that violence against women is not important enough for us to take up,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Wednesday. “This is a pandemic in America. It is a lethal pandemic in America. It is a psychological trauma in America.”
The VAWA vote also came less than 24 hours after a gunman in Atlanta killed eight people, six Asian American women, though the motive of that crime is still unknown.
“This crime has elements that we are trying to address here in Congress, gun violence, violence against women and the meteoric rise of violence we are witnessing against the (Asian American Pacific Islander) community,” Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., said during the floor debate. “As a woman who is Black and Korean, I’m acutely aware how it feels to be erased or ignored and how the default position when violence is committed against women of color or women is to defer from confronting the hate that is often the motivation.
The White House issued a statement this week supporting the bill, saying, “VAWA reauthorization is more urgent now than ever, especially when the pandemic and economic crisis have only further increased the risks of abuse and the barriers to safety for women in the United States.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the law was “one of the president’s proudest accomplishments.”
Biden, then chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee, led the effort in 1994 for federal recognition of the violence perpetrated on women and to provide them legal protections.
“The term VAWA has become synonymous with justice‚” Pelosi said.
The House also voted to remove the deadline for states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment after a federal court ruled that the deadline long ago expired. The vote was largely along party lines, 222-to-204.
Congress passed the amendment in 1972, but even with a deadline extension to 1982, only 35 states had ratified, short of the required 38 needed to amend the Constitution. Illinois, Nevada and Virginia recently approved it, hitting the 38 state threshold.
“Every single Constitution in the world drafted since 1950 has the equivalent of the equal rights amendment except the United States of America,” said Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., “Today I will vote for the equal rights amendment to assure that my granddaughters, that women and girls throughout the world, throughout the country, for sure, are not only strong and powerful and resilient, but also equal here in the United States under the Constitution.”