House easily passes Senate’s Violence Against Women bill

The House on Thursday approved a bipartisan Senate bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), handing a victory to President Obama and Senate Democrats.

Members approved the Senate bill, S. 47, in a bipartisan 286-138 vote. As expected, every Democrat voted for the Senate bill, and they were joined by 87 Republicans; 138 GOP members voted against it.

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The vote ends a year-long fight over a program meant to protect women from domestic violence that in prior years had been easily and quickly reauthorized. The legislation will now go to the White House for Obama’s signature.

Republicans had opposed the Senate bill in the last Congress, but quickly reversed course this year when it became clear a House GOP version of the bill would not become law. 

The GOP in the interim endured a difficult election season that saw it lose the White House and seats in the House and Senate amid polling evidence of a “gender gap” that saw Republicans lose ground with female voters.

The Senate bill also included a key change that made it easier for Republicans to accept. Unlike last year's bill, it did not make it easier for non-citizen victims of domestic violence to win visas.

The decision to move forward with the Senate bill suggested a willingness on the part of leaders to pick their fights with Obama, and to try to put a potentially damaging fight behind them as quickly as possible.

Before approving the Senate bill, the House in a 166-257 vote rejected a substitute amendment backed by Republicans. Only two Democrats supported the GOP proposal, and 60 Republicans voted against it. 

It became clear on Tuesday that the House would pass the Senate version, after House Republicans realized there was not enough support in their own caucus to approve their version of the bill. But that caused some grumbling in the GOP ranks on Wednesday, and led nine Republicans to vote against the rule for the bill.

In Thursday debate, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) encouraged members to support the House legislation. But he did not discourage anyone from supporting the Senate bill, and mostly spoke about the need to reauthorize the popular program.

“We want to help all women who are faced with violent, abusive and dangerous situations,” he said, adding that he has worked to find consensus on reauthorization over the last year.

“We want to make sure all women are safe and have access to resources they need to protect themselves, their children and their families,” he said. “We want them to know that somebody is there and willing to help. And we want them to know that those who commit these horrendous crimes will be punished and not let go.”

Cantor voted against the Senate bill, while all other House GOP leaders voted for it. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did not vote.

Passage of the Senate bill was welcomed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who said the vote will help protect domestic violence victims who have so far not been covered under the VAWA program.

"This is a long delayed, hard won, and badly needed victory for millions of women, especially those who were told that they weren't worthy of VAWA's protections," she said. "It means that finally, after over 16 months of struggle, tribal women, the LGBT community, immigrants, and women on college campuses will have the tools and resources this life-saving bill provides."

While the VAWA technically expired in 2011, its many grant programs have been fully funded and have been in full operation since then.

Republicans argued that their bill offered protections that are as strong or stronger than those in the Senate bill. Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said the House bill also includes language requiring a closer audit of how money is spent.

“It ensures that money goes to victims by increasing accountability,” she said. “It ensures and guarantees that grants to combat sexual assault are distributed equitably. It improves the ability for law enforcement to prosecute abusers. It better protects Indian women from domestic violence. And it safeguards constitutional rights to ensure justice for victims.

After the vote, McMorris Rodgers stressed that the VAWA program is still supported by both parties, despite the wrangling over its details.

"The bottom line is this is a program that has long enjoyed bipartisan support," she said. "We put forward a plan. We had been engaged in this debate for a couple of years, and the House was allowed to work its will."

Language related to the protection of Indian women was a big sticking point this year. Both bills gave Indian tribes jurisdiction over non-Indians in domestic abuse cases, but many Republicans in the House and Senate said they preferred the greater assurances in the House proposal that non-Indians would maintain all their constitutional rights in an Indian tribunal.

Earlier in the week, Republicans said that some tribes told them they were not able to guarantee a trial system that guarantees full constitutional rights to defendants. The GOP also said taking steps to ensure these rights exist on tribal lands would help ensure that sentences handed down in tribal courts are maintained, and not challenged.

The fight over LGBT protection centered on explicit Senate language that said LGBT victims cannot be discriminated against when applying for grants under the VAWA program. House Republicans favored their own proposal, which they said covered all victims of violence without listing out those who cannot face discrimination in these grant decisions.

Last year, questions over whether to expand access to certain visas for non-citizens who are victims of domestic violence was the major sticking point. Last year's Senate Democratic bill included language that would have expanded access to these visas, but Republicans said that change would have increased the deficit, and as a revenue measure should not have been considered in the Senate at all.

The new Senate version approved this year eliminated that piece of the bill, which many saw as a move that would likely make it easier for many Republicans to accept the Senate bill.

Democrats used the debate over the GOP bill to continue their argument that it does not offer protections for Indians, non-citizens and LGBT victims that are as strong as those in the Senate bill.

“It's really hard to explain … what eyes are the Republicans looking through, that they do not see the folly of their ways on this legislation that they are proposing,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. “Not only is it much weaker than the Senate bill, it is weaker than current law.

“So this is nothing to be proud of, this Republican bill,” she said

Russell Berman contributed

This story was posted at 11:48 a.m. and last updated at 12:27 p.m.