House passes Violence Against Women Act reauthorization

The House late Wednesday approved a bill reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), setting up a possible conference with the Senate in which Democrats will push hard for Senate-passed language that they say offers better protection for women.

As expected, members approved the bill mostly along party lines. The reauthorization was approved 222-205 with six Democrats voting with Republicans. The vote was relatively close because 22 Republicans voted against it.

Throughout the day, Democrats blasted Republicans for bringing up a bill that does not go as far as a Senate bill to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. The Senate bill says explicitly that there can be no discrimination against these people under the VAWA program.

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Democrats also prefer Senate language that would give tribal courts jurisdiction over domestic abuse cases, even when the abuser is a not Native American, and said the House bill would shut down a pathway to citizenship to illegal aliens who are given certain visas when they are victims of domestic abuse. The Senate bill also would expand the availability of these visas, language that is not in the House bill because Republicans said it would increase the deficit.

"House Republicans have brought to the floor today a bill that is controversial, and that will weaken the protections we have given to those who suffer domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. "This legislation on the floor fails vulnerable people, members of the LGBT community, native American women, and immigrant victims.

"All people deserve to be protected from domestic violence. There should be no exceptions to this law."

Republicans spent the day dismissing Democratic claims that the GOP is insensitive to the plight of battered women and have launched a "war on women," chalking up Democratic arguments to election-year propaganda.

"Democrats in Congress and others have been accusing Republicans for months for waging a war on women," said Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.), the sponsor of the bill. "We've been called anti-victim, elitist, homophobic and racist. These ridiculous attacks stop now. Right here, right now."

Republicans said the bill, H.R. 4970, is essentially a straight, five-year extension of the law that includes many elements of the Senate bill, and strengthens some of the sentences against people guilty of domestic abuse. It also includes improvements aimed at increasing accountability for the VAWA program as it spends money. The GOP said these changes are meant to ensure women get all the aid they need under the program.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said Democrats were the ones pushing for an unprecedented expansion of the law and conflating the failure to expand the law with a Republican effort to roll it back.

"They seem to have fallen for the contagion that started on other side of Capitol, by expanding the scope of the law in a very controversial manner, by making an issue of whether a non-Indian can be prosecuted in a tribal court, which brings huge constitutional issues because the Bill of Rights does not apply in tribal courts," Sensenbrenner said.

"It is the people on the other side of the aisle on both sides of the Capitol that have decided to use this as a political issue," he added. "If the people on the other side are successful, the blood of the defeat of this bill will be on your hands, not on ours."

On protections for LGBT people, Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) said Republicans believe everyone deserves equal protection under the law.

"Any woman, any person I should say, who is a victim of domestic violence is a victim of domestic violence, and beyond that it should be of no concern," she said.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), a former prosecutor, retold some of his encounters with battered women at the end of the debate and forcefully rejected Democratic attempts to win political points by criticizing the GOP bill.

"Can we stop these election-year gimmicks?" Gowdy shouted from the floor. "Can we stop these manufactured wars that pit one group of Americans against another group of Americans?"

House passage could set up a conference with the Senate on its version, S. 1925, which the Senate approved in April. The Obama administration has threatened to veto the House bill.