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Violence Against Women Act passed by House, sent to Obama for signature

The Republican-controlled House on Thursday approved an updated version of the Violence Against Women Act that includes new protections for gay men and lesbians, part of an effort by GOP leaders to improve their image among women after last year’s poor election results.

The Senate approved the measure in January and President Obama said he will quickly sign it into law.

The vote concluded a protracted political fight over the issue that had split Republicans and allowed the landmark legislation — adopted in 1994 — to linger with an uncertain fate since its expiration in 2011.

The bill passed the House on a vote of 286 to 138, as a unified Democratic caucus joined 87 supportive Republicans. The measure was opposed by 138 Republicans for a variety of reasons, including the new protections for gays.

More Republicans opposed the bill than supported it — the third time since December that House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) has allowed legislation to move off the floor that did not have the support of a majority of his divided members.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), surrounded by Democratic women at a news conference, said, “If we have to supply the votes, we should be helping to write the bills.”

In this case, the outcome stemmed from a broad desire among GOP leaders to get past the continued opposition to a measure that passed the Senate with broad bipartisan support and holds strong appeal among female voters.

The vote came after a November election in which Republicans lost ground among female voters, in part because several key GOP candidates made embarrassing statements about rape.

Obama offered praise for the congressional action, as did Vice President Biden, who helped write the original version of the bill when he was in the Senate.

“Renewing this bill is an important step toward making sure no one in America is forced to live in fear,” Obama said in a statement.

Hailed as landmark legislation when it was passed in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act authorizes funding for programs that help prosecute sexual assault and domestic abuse cases and assist crime victims.

The bill will authorize up to $660 million each year for the next five years for such programs — 17 percent less than the last time the act was reauthorized, in 2005.

Advocates had pushed hard for the measure’s approval and supported provisions to expand its reach, including barring programs that receive funding from discriminating against gays.

The measure also gives tribal courts greater authority to prosecute non-Native American men who are accused of crimes on Indian reservations, a provision that many House Republicans consider unconstitutional.

Last year, amid a heated election season dominated by attempts to lure female voters, Democrats pointed to GOP opposition to the legislation as an example of the party’s indifference toward women.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) helped craft a GOP version of the measure that did not mention same-sex couples and attempted a compromise on the issue of Indian reservations.

But his proposal was defeated Thursday on a vote of 166 to 257, crumbling under opposition from unified Democrats and a bloc of Republicans, some of whom said the GOP bill did not adequately acknowledge the sovereignty of Indian tribes.

Other Republicans were opposed to any version of the Violence Against Women Act, saying that it improperly entangles the federal government in programs better left to state and local governments.

Republican leaders were split. Paul Ryan (Wis.), who was the party’s 2012 vice presidential candidate, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) backed the Senate bill that eventually passed. Cantor, who had led the GOP’s effort on the issue, voted against it.

Minority Democrats let out a cheer on the House floor as the Cantor bill fell — and again when the Senate measure was approved. Many who had pushed the legislation for months declared victory.

“There is absolutely no reason that it should have taken this long for the House leadership to come around on a bill that had overwhelming bipartisan support,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “But passage today is a validation of what we’ve been saying since this bill expired in 2011: VAWA has never been, and should never be, a partisan bill.”

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.

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