Violence Against Women Act holds high stakes for House Republicans in 2014

Several House Republicans are signaling support for the once-controversial Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a development that carries political ramifications as the GOP seeks to repair its image among female voters in time for 2014.

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Republican Reps. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and Charlie Dent (Pa.) both told The Hill that they would back the Senate bill as passed. And Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.) said he’s open to the bill as well, despite qualms about a controversial plank concerning jurisdiction over tribal lands.

“It is far, far past due to reauthorize VAWA. The Senate version of VAWA achieves the main purpose — helping protect women who are victims of domestic abuse — and for that reason, I would support it if the House decides to bring it up," Capito said in a statement to The Hill.

The Senate passed its VAWA reauthorization earlier this week, with 22 Republican senators voting against the bill. 

VAWA’s future in the House remains uncertain. 

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is in negotiations with Vice President Biden, the original author of VAWA, to ensure the bill’s passage, but there has as of yet been no indication of what a compromise would look like.

Already, Democrats are seeking to revive the GOP “war on women” narrative — which they made a central theme of the 2012 election — and cast House Republicans as reluctant to back VAWA. 

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, told The Hill that there’s evidence Republican leadership wants to bring the bill up for a vote. 

But the split in the Senate Republican Caucus on VAWA indicates “they have a hard core of extremely right-wing Tea Party members who are still giving them a hard time, so it’s still up in the air whether they bring it to the floor,” Wasserman Schultz said. 

The 2012 election cycle saw Republicans up and down the ballot face accusations that they were “out of touch” on women’s issues — a Democratic argument that gained traction with voters following inopportune comments about rape and pregnancy by Republican Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana. 

National exit polling showed 55 percent of women voted for House Democratic candidates, compared to 45 percent who supported House Republicans. 

The presidential race saw an identical gender gap in favor of President Obama.

For Capito, the stakes around VAWA are potentially significant. 

She is running for retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller's (D-W.Va.) seat in 2014 — and recent polls give her a strong lead on any potential Republican and Democratic challengers. 

Support for VAWA could help Capito set herself apart from the right wing of the Republican Party in a red state that has a history of electing Democrats in state-level races. 

Capito is far from alone among Republicans for whom the passage — or failure — of VAWA in the House could loom large in 2014. 

A handful of House Republicans, mostly hailing from blue states where they will be vulnerable going into 2014, sent a letter to House leadership this week urging passage of the bill. 

Dent, who signed the letter, said his support was based on the merits of the bill alone. But he also acknowledged the potential problems he could face in 2014 if the legislation fails. 

“It’s legislation I have supported in the past. I continue to support it. And I think we should get it done on policy grounds alone, but clearly if it isn’t enacted there could be political consequences,” he said.

Meehan said that while he is "a little bit worried about the constitutional questions that might arise" concerning the plank that expands protections to Native American women in tribal courts, "it's not significant enough that I would not support a bill that moves forward" in the House.

"Let's see what comes through," Meehan said.

Both Dent and Meehan will be running in swing districts that Obama won in 2008 but where GOP candidate Mitt Romney came out on top in 2012 — and where a Republican advantage is by no means assured.

Dent is also one of 30 Republicans the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee believes will be vulnerable on women’s issues going into 2014. 

Most are in blue-leaning suburban districts, though an official with the committee says women’s issues resonate in both urban and rural areas.

Last year, the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization failed for the first time since its inception in 1994 amid election-year furor. Both chambers passed their own versions of a bill, but neither bill went any further.

At issue in the last Congress were measures protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals (LGBTQ) and undocumented immigrants, and the expansion of protections to Native American women on tribal lands. 

The House-passed version lacked these planks, and passed with the support of a large majority of Republicans and six Democrats, most of whom were running for reelection in red states.

The new bill passed by the Senate includes a couple of sweeteners to appeal to Republicans, but maintains the provisions covering the LGBTQ community and tribal lands expansion.

Capito and Dent voted for the House-passed bill last year; Meehan did not, because he said it didn't do enough to strengthen measures protecting women on college campuses.

If the vote comes, it’s far enough out from the 2014 election that any no-votes could fly under the radar. 

But Jennifer Lawless, head of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, warns that a failure to pass VAWA could play into a larger narrative of a Republican “war on women.”

“If it doesn’t pass in the House and it becomes part of a broader narrative of the Republican ‘war on women,’ then yes,” it could have ramifications at the polls, Lawless said.

“If Republicans are serious about trying to be more inclusive, not only regarding race and ethnicity but also concerning gender, this seems to be a non-controversial step that they could take,” she added.

Wasserman Schultz suggested that, regardless of the outcome of the VAWA debate, Democrats will work to make women’s issues a headache again for Republicans in 2014.

“We are going to bring many issues that are important to women in front of the voters as we get closer to the elections, that demonstrate the clear contrast in how the Democratic Party prioritizes issues important to women,” she said.

--This piece was updated at 12:35 p.m. to reflect Meehan's position on the initial House VAWA.