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 FrankelDemocrats introduce 'THUG Act' to block funding for G-7 at Trump resort Overnight Defense — Presented by Huntington Ingalls Industries — Impeachment inquiry overshadows Trump at UN | Veterans push VA to follow through on reforms | Iranian leader open to changes in nuke deal Pelosi to launch formal Trump impeachment inquiry MORE (D-Fla.), co-chairwoman of the Democratic Women's Caucus.

Rep. Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Trump official declines to detail plans if ObamaCare struck down | DEA unveils rule for opioid manufacturers | Republican tells Zuckerberg to allow anti-vax content 58 GOP lawmakers vote against disaster aid bill The GOP's commitment to electing talented women can help party retake the House 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 StefanikKatie Pavlich: Schiff's shifting standards GOP lawmaker: Schiff should be first witness Republicans call to testify in impeachment inquiry Singer Brandi Carlile drops out of Fortune event over Kirstjen Nielsen's appearance 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 DeLauroOn The Money: Senate passes first spending package as shutdown looms | Treasury moves to roll back Obama rules on offshore tax deals | Trade deal talks manage to weather Trump impeachment storm Trade deal talks manage to weather Trump impeachment storm House Democrats launch process to replace Cummings on Oversight panel 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 TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment Outsider candidates outpoll insider candidates 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 MillerGOP women's super PAC blasts 'out of touch' candidate in NC runoff GOP amps up efforts to recruit women candidates Kerry goes after Trump over climate on Capitol Hill 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 LawrenceThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Dems unveil impeachment measure; Vindman splits GOP Michigan House Democrats plan vigil for Iraqi man who died after deportation Democrats warn of Trump trap 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 WagnerBottom Line On The Money: Tax, loan documents for Trump properties reportedly showed inconsistencies | Tensions flare as Dems hammer Trump consumer chief | Critics pounce as Facebook crypto project stumbles Tensions flare as Democrats urge consumer bureau to boost penalties 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 PelosiGiuliani pens op-ed slamming 'unprecedented' impeachment inquiry Brindisi, Lamb recommended for Armed Services, Transportation Committees Overnight Health Care: Top health official defends contract payments to Trump allies | Vaping advocates confident Trump will turn from flavor ban | Sanders gets endorsement from nurses union 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 McCarthyHouse Republicans prepare for public impeachment proceedings with mock hearing Live updates on impeachment: Schiff fires warning at GOP over whistleblower Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate 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.