GOP on defensive over Dem votes on policies geared toward women

House Republicans are playing defense as Democrats hold votes on a series of measures that could make it more difficult for the GOP to recoup losses with female voters in 2018.

The House on Wednesday approved the Paycheck Fairness Act, which strengthens penalties against employers that discriminate against female workers with lower wages.

And this week, the House is set to vote on a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) after it expired in late December. 

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Both measures have been top priorities for Democrats since they took over the House majority, which was fueled in large part by female voters. A Democratic aide said that leaders wanted to vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act ahead of Equal Pay Day on April 2 and to bring up the VAWA renewal soon after it advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month. 

But the two bills also give Democrats an opportunity to cast the GOP as unfriendly to women on both issues.

"We were put into the majority by the women of this country. And so I think it is only fair as we forge ahead with our 'For the People' agenda that we try to deal with some of these obstacles," said Rep. Lois FrankelLois Jane FrankelRepublicans amp up attacks on Tlaib's Holocaust comments Overnight Health Care: Biden backs Medicare buy-in | New warnings as measles cases surpass record | House Dems propose M to study gun violence prevention House Democrats seek to protect Planned Parenthood from Trump's funding cuts MORE (D-Fla.), co-chairwoman of the Democratic Women's Caucus.

Rep. Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxThe GOP's commitment to electing talented women can help party retake the House When disaster relief hurts Lobbying World MORE (R-N.C.), the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, accused Democrats of "just playing gotcha games."

Republicans argue the Paycheck Fairness Act offered by Democrats would simply spur on more lawsuits.

The renewal of VAWA is opposed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) because of a provision that would tighten gun restrictions for domestic abusers.

Foxx, like other Republicans, argued that the Paycheck Fairness Act wouldn't really help women close the pay gap.

"If they wouldn't cap the fees for the lawyers, that's an indication right there that they're not interested in helping women. They're interested in helping trial lawyers," Foxx said.

Rep. Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikHere are the eight Republicans who voted with Democrats on the Equality Act House approves anti-LGBT discrimination Equality Act The GOP's commitment to electing talented women can help party retake the House MORE (R-N.Y.) introduced an alternative gender pay parity bill on the day the House passed the Democrats’ Paycheck Fairness Act, calling it "a prime example of Republicans leading on women’s empowerment."

"Republicans strongly support equal pay for equal work, and we owe it to women to constructively engage on this important issue and put forward solutions to strengthen existing law," Stefanik said.

Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroWatchdog: DeVos used personal emails for work in 'limited' cases Press: Who will be the first conservative to take on Trump? A good week for the nation's family planning program MORE (D-Conn.), who introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act in 1997, said she
"[found] it interesting" that Republicans offered a counterproposal — in contrast to in 2009, the last time the legislation was approved.

"It's taken a long time. It's been hard to break through on this. But we are in a moment when the issue and the environment have collided in order to make it very much central to the public discourse today," DeLauro said.

Republicans are worried about the drop in support among suburban and female voters that fueled Democrats' midterm victory last November.

Exit polling showed that female voters favored Democrats by eight points over Republicans in 2018. White women split their votes evenly between the two parties last November, compared to 2016, when they voted for President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: Trump faces steep climb to reelection What the Mueller report tells us about Putin, Russia and Trump's election Steve Bullock puts Citizens United decision at center of presidential push MORE by nine points. 

Republicans are also seeing a precipitous drop in support from suburban voters. Those voters split evenly between Republicans and Democrats in 2018, after Trump won them by two points in 2016. By comparison, suburban voters favored Republicans by 12 points in the previous midterm elections in 2014.  

Trump's approval rating among women isn't helping Republicans. A poll from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal earlier this month found that 61 percent of women disapproved of Trump.

Republicans are also sensitive to the fact that their House conference is mostly male.

Incumbent losses, retirements and runs for higher office led to a drop in the number of female members in the House GOP conference, from 23 to just 13. House Republicans have only one woman in their freshman class: Carol MillerCarol Devine MillerKerry goes after Trump over climate on Capitol Hill Overnight Energy: Interior pick heads toward Senate confirmation | Dems want probe into nominee's role on pesticide report | House climate panel holds first hearing Newly-formed House climate panel holds first hearing MORE of West Virginia.

Democrats are all too happy to spotlight those differences.

"Democratic women represent the vast majority of women in America," said Rep. Brenda LawrenceBrenda Lulenar LawrenceOvernight Energy: Interior chief says climate response falls on Congress | Bernhardt insists officials will complete offshore drilling plans | Judge rules EPA must enforce Obama landfill pollution rules Trump Interior chief says climate change response falls on Congress Hillicon Valley: Washington preps for Mueller report | Barr to hold Thursday presser | Lawmakers dive into AI ethics | FCC chair moves to block China Mobile | Dem bill targets 'digital divide' | Microsoft denies request for facial recognition tech MORE (D-Mich.), another co-chairwoman of the Democratic Women's Caucus.

Multiple female GOP lawmakers have taken steps since the November elections to work on building the party’s support among women.

Stefanik launched a PAC in January to recruit and elect more GOP women to Congress, while Rep. Ann WagnerAnn Louise WagnerRepublicans offer 'free market alternative' to paid family leave Top GOP lawmaker moves to force floor vote on abortion bill This week: Senate GOP prepares to change rules on Trump nominees MORE (R-Mo.) launched the Suburban Caucus earlier this month to create a policy agenda to help suburban families with issues such as paid parental leave and child care costs. 

The Paycheck Fairness Act would require employers to prove pay disparities aren't rooted in gender discrimination and are "consistent with business necessity." It also would ban employers from asking prospective employees about salary history or retaliating against workers who discuss wages, require that businesses with 100 or more employees report annual compensation data, and authorize grants for negotiation skills training programs. 

According to a summary from Stefanik's office, her proposal would ensure workers could discuss compensation with colleagues while giving employers the ability to set "reasonable limitations" on the time and location of that activity. It also creates a "self-audit" to encourage businesses to conduct pay analyses on their own and, similar to the Democrats' bill, authorizes a grant program for negotiation education. 

VAWA expired when the government shutdown began in December. But lawmakers didn't include an extension in a spending bill to reopen the government a month later.

Stefanik also put forward "clean" legislation to extend current VAWA policy for one year, which is backed by House GOP leaders.

Republicans say Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE (D-Calif.) could just put a clean extension on the floor and it would pass.

"I think the best thing for us to do is to extend the current VAWA into the rest of the year," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Buzz grows Rep. Amash will challenge Trump as a Libertarian MORE (R-Calif.) said at a press conference on Thursday, pointing to Stefanik's bill. 

"She's playing political games. That's why she expired it," McCarthy said of Pelosi.

Democrats are seeking changes to current law in their VAWA reauthorization proposal, including a provision to tighten gun restrictions for domestic abusers.

Existing law prohibits people convicted of domestic violence offenses against their spouses or family members from owning guns. But Democrats' VAWA bill would extend it to people who abuse their dating partners to close the so-called "boyfriend loophole."

The NRA has come out in opposition to the legislation. National Journal first reported this week that the group's announcement came after Republicans discussed enlisting its backup to help offer cover for opposing the VAWA renewal.

Democrats have seized on the NRA's opposition as a choice between protecting domestic violence survivors and the gun rights of abusers.

"There's very discrete provisions that relate to protecting women's safety. And they're against it," Pelosi said of Republicans on Thursday.

But as a result of GOP opposition to House Democrats' VAWA reauthorization, the measure is unlikely to be taken up by the Senate, leaving its renewal in limbo.

"Nothing that's passing in the House is going to be taken up in the Senate that's these gotcha bills," Foxx said.