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 FrankelUS must lead the charge on global reproductive rights — not stand in the way Charlize Theron: We didn't want the politics to overshadow 'Bombshell' Democrats introduce 'THUG Act' to block funding for G-7 at Trump resort MORE (D-Fla.), co-chairwoman of the Democratic Women's Caucus.

Rep. Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxCourt ruling reignites ObamaCare fight for 2020 Democratic lawmaker tears into DeVos: You're 'out to destroy public education' House GOP unveils alternative drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote 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 StefanikThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules White House appoints GOP House members to advise Trump's impeachment team Lawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown 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 DeLauroSome kids will spend Christmas in border cages On The Money: House approves Trump USMCA deal in bipartisan vote | Senate sends .4T spending bill to Trump's desk | Why budget watchdogs are howling over the spending deal House approves Trump's USMCA trade deal amid shadow of impeachment 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 says his advice to impeachment defense team is 'just be honest' Trump expands tariffs on steel and aluminum imports CNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group MORE over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders to Clinton: 'This is not the kind of rhetoric that we need' Sekulow vows Bidens, Ukraine will be part of Trump impeachment defense Elizabeth Warren: More 'Hillary' than Hillary 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 LawrenceHouse Democrat walks back remark favoring censure over impeachment Jane Fonda calls for protecting water resources at weekly DC climate protest DCCC adds senior staffers after summer departures 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 WagnerDCCC to run ads tying 11 House Republicans to Trump remarks on entitlements GOP can beat Democrats after impeachment — but it needs to do this one thing Group of veterans call on lawmakers to support impeachment, 'put country over politics' 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 PelosiCNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Social Security emerges as flash point in Biden-Sanders fight | Dems urge Supreme Court to save consumer agency | Trump to sign USMCA next week Veronica Escobar to give Spanish-language response to Trump State of the Union address 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 - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Cheney's decision not to run for Senate sparks Speaker chatter Mark Mellman: A failure of GOP leadership 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.