House to vote on Violence Against Women Act measures

February 27, 2013

Seeking to avoid a protracted and politically damaging fight over reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, Republican leaders are prepared to allow the House to vote Thursday on a version of the bill favored by Democrats, an unusual move that acknowledges GOP divisions on the touchy issue.

The House will vote first on a Republican version of the bill, which authorizes funding for programs to aid prosecution of domestic violence and sexual assault cases and assist victims.

But with Democrats unified in opposition and Republicans divided, the GOP’s alternative appears likely to fail.

The House would then move to a vote on a version adopted by the Senate this month on a broadly bipartisan 78 to 22 vote. It broadens the bill’s protections to gays and lesbians and expands the authority of tribal courts to prosecute non-native Americans accused in domestic violence cases on Indian reservations. It is supported by the White House and domestic violence advocates.

That bill is expected to pass on the strength of votes from Democrats and some Republicans — and over objections from a bloc of conservatives, an increasingly common pathway for successful legislation in a House roiled by divisions inside the GOP majority.

The outcome would send the Senate bill to President Obama for his signature, reauthorizing the landmark measure which has been credited with raising awareness of the problems of violence against women since it was first enacted in 1994.

“The majority of the country feels strongly this is something we ought to do,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a Native American. He prefers the Senate bill because of how it would deal with crimes committed on Indian reservations. “It’s better to resolve this and move on, rather than be hung up on the issue.”

VAWA has been reauthorized on noncontroversial and bipartisan votes twice.

But a third reauthorization stumbled on a partisan dispute last year after the House adopted a Republican bill in response to opposition expansions in VAWA’s protections that had been adopted by the Senate.

The two chambers could not work out differences in their bill before it expired with the end of the last Congress.

But after a campaign season marred by GOP missteps on the sensitive issue of rape and an election won by Democrats in part because of women’s support, Republican leaders are now eager to find a resolution on the issue.

When the Senate took up a bill similar to one that passed last year with 15 Republican Senate votes, its GOP support grew to 23 senators. A bloc of House Republicans then began urging their leaders to allow the bipartisan version to receive a vote.

“Elections have consequences,” said Terri O’Neal, president of the National Organization for Women, which is part of a broad coalition pushing the Senate version, explaining the shift.

“House Republicans look increasingly out of touch with the American public if they’re the place where these bipartisan bills come to die. I think wiser heads among their leadership recognize that,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had been leading the effort to craft a GOP version of the bill, conducting negotiations with Vice President Biden, an author of the original measure, in hopes of picking up bipartisan support.

But Cantor’s version drew opposition from a diverse group of Republicans. Some say the Violence Against Women Act involves Congress in local programs that should be controlled by states.

Others, from more moderate districts, favored the Senate bill — including its new provisions that would bar discrimination against gays and lesbians in programs funded under the act.

Still others, like Cole, believed the House bill did not do enough to recognize Native American sovereignty in extending new authorities to tribal courts.

A House Republican leadership aide said the decision to allow the Senate bill to receive a vote stemmed from a desire to get the bill passed — even as he grumbled that Democrats were not interested in working on a compromise but instead wielded the Senate bill as a political cudgel to use against House Republicans.

“We’re committed to getting VAWA through. No bill is perfect,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on leader negotiations.

But the strategy faced opposition from some conservatives who expressed concern at a closed-door Republican meeting Wednesday afternoon, some of whom believe the provisions on tribal courts in the Senate bill are unconstitutional and will cause the bill to be rejected in court.

“The whole thing could be thrown out if it has constitutional issues,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “I’d rather not see issues have a chance to pass, because then we’d be in even worse place in protecting women.”

Both measures authorize funding for VAWA programs at about $660 million a year for five years, a cut of 17 percent since the bill was last authorized in 2005.

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