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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 FrankelHow Congress dismissed women's empowerment Frankel defeats Loomer in Florida House race Live updates: Democrats seek to extend House advantage MORE (D-Fla.), co-chairwoman of the Democratic Women's Caucus.

Rep. Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxREAD: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results Republicans vent over surprise Trump move on COVID-19 relief 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 StefanikGOP divided over Liz Cheney's future GOP at crossroads after Capitol siege Top Republican congressional aide resigns, rips GOP lawmakers who objected to Biden win 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 DeLauroTim Ryan, Rosa DeLauro giving free coffee and donuts to National Guard stationed at Capitol Trump seeks to freeze .4 billion of programs in final week of presidency House Democrats request cots for National Guard troops stationed in Capitol 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 TrumpCIA chief threatened to resign over push to install Trump loyalist as deputy: report Azar in departure letter says Capitol riot threatens to 'tarnish' administration's accomplishments Justice Dept. argues Trump should get immunity from rape accuser's lawsuit MORE over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMillennials and the great reckoning on race Biden chooses Amanda Gorman as youngest known inaugural poet Can Biden encompass the opposition he embodied? 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 MillerREAD: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results Chamber-endorsed Dems struggle on election night Partial disengagement based on democratic characteristics: A new era of US-China economic relations 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 LawrenceHillicon Valley: FBI chief says Russia is trying to interfere in election to undermine Biden | Treasury Dept. sanctions Iranian government-backed hackers Lawmakers call for expanded AI role in education, business to remain competitive The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep 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 WagnerTrump era bows out with scorched-earth drama in divided GOP Democrats projected to retain House majority Live updates: Democrats seek to extend House advantage 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 PelosiDemocrats point fingers on whether Capitol rioters had inside help Pelosi suggests criminal charges for any lawmaker who helped with Capitol riot Pelosi mum on when House will send impeachment article to Senate 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 McCarthyGOP divided over Liz Cheney's future Democrats point fingers on whether Capitol rioters had inside help Pelosi suggests criminal charges for any lawmaker who helped with Capitol riot 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.