A Democratic bill to help victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse forced House Republicans — including their shrunken corps of female lawmakers — to choose Thursday between backing a renewal of the landmark 1994 Violence Against Women Act, or standing with the National Rifle Association.
The GOP mostly sided with the NRA, which strongly opposed the bill over its expansion of gun control.
Democrats, who captured the majority with a record-wide gender gap in last year’s midterms, have sought to press their advantage with women — and put the GOP on the defensive — by passing a bill last week aimed at reducing the gender pay disparity. On Thursday, the House approved a long-term reauthorization of the domestic violence bill, commonly known as VAWA.
Seven GOP lawmakers, none of them women, voted for the Paycheck Fairness Act last week. Thirty-three Republicans broke with their party to support VAWA on a 263-158 vote.
The bill would authorize hundreds of millions of dollars in annual grants and enshrine a variety of legal protections for victims of sexual assault, domestic abuse and stalking, while giving law enforcement agencies resources and authority to pursue perpetrators.
Drawing the NRA’s opposition were Democratic changes to the measure. The legislation closes what gun-control advocates call the “boyfriend loophole” — barring gun sales to convicted abusers of current or former dating partners. The bill would also, for the first time, prohibit gun sales to people found guilty of stalking misdemeanors and those under one-party restraining orders.
Republicans clearly were frustrated with the Democratic revisions.
During a heated debate Thursday, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) complained that the bill “politicizes VAWA and could put women, girls and children at potential risk.”
“Can we stop playing political games at the expense of vulnerable women?” Stefanik asked.
That prompted a fiery rebuttal from Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who exploded at the suggestion that the gun language was overly political.
“Do not let the NRA bully you,” she shouted, and reminded lawmakers that her late husband, former congressman John Dingell, had served on the board of the NRA and later rebelled against the powerful gun lobby.
The gun provisions reflect a long-standing push for gun control by Democrats who saw little opportunity to influence legislation during their eight years in the House minority. Now, under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Democrats chose to allow VAWA to expire and pursue a rewrite that is more in line with their preferences — and those of suburban women whose votes stand to be crucial to the party’s hopes of keeping its majority in 2020.
Now in the minority, Republicans can only criticize the tactics.
“We were for renewing it. Nancy Pelosi is the one who blocked it,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said. “She wanted it to expire so, like so many other issues, she can use different groups of people as pawns in her political games . . . Why don’t we actually work together to solve these problems?”
But some of those Republicans who have been willing to join with Democrats have urged colleagues to keep an open mind.
“They need to be smart about this vote and look at the sum of the whole,” said Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), who voted for the bill Thursday, summarizing a message she delivered to fellow Republicans in a closed-door conference meeting this week. “There’s always something wrong about every piece of legislation, and I think over 90, 95 percent of this is positive.”
Other Republican women, however, railed against the bill, attacking provisions they said could threaten women by requiring domestic violence shelters to house transgender women, as well as the gun-control measures.
Some GOP lawmakers accused Democrats of intentionally inserting wedge issues in the bill for political, not policy reasons.
“They know that a number of Republicans will vote against it so that then they can turn around and say that we’re against women,” Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), who suffered abuse at the hands of an ex-husband, said in an interview. “This is a really important issue to me, and I wish it wasn’t so, but it is.”
The new House not only has a record number of women, but also the most lopsided partisan split among female members since 1975. Eighty-nine of the 235 House Democrats are women, while 13 of the 197 House Republicans are female. One member of the GOP leadership team, Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), is a woman.
But when debating legislation dealing with gender issues, those women tend to take center stage. It did not go unnoticed across the aisle that much of the Republican floor time on the recent bills was claimed by GOP women.
“I’ve always said they should have more women, but after these votes, I’m not sure it would make a difference,” said Rep. Lois Frankel (Fla.), chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus, who added that female Republicans were “put up” to rebut Democratic bills targeting women: “There’s definitely a strategy there. I think it’s sad. It’s pretty obvious — obvious and sad.”
Scalise called that suggestion “an insult to any woman in our conference who is fighting to protect women.”
Last year Democrats won the women’s vote by 19 percentage points — the largest margin in midterm exit polls dating back at least four decades. As recently as 2014, that gap was only four points.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll last October found Democrats with a 26-percentage-point advantage in trust over Republicans to handle equal treatment of men and women in society. Among women, the margin was 36 points — 62 percent trusting Democrats more while 26 percent trusted Republicans.
The widening gender gap has not gone unnoticed by top GOP leaders, who have moved to recruit more women to run as candidates in 2020. Stefanik is leading an outside political committee aimed not only at recruiting GOP women to run for the House but also to help them prevail in primaries.
Stefanik has also taken a leading role in the GOP’s rebuttal to Democratic legislation, introducing a conservative alternative to the Paycheck Fairness Act — a bill, she said, that “prioritizes trial attorneys and government regulation over women’s economic empowerment.” She also urged fellow Republicans to support her own anti-domestic-violence bill, one that would extend the current VAWA for a year rather than proceed with a long-term rewrite.
“Democrats do not have a monopoly on women voters in this country,” she said in an interview Thursday.
The NRA, which tracked Thursday’s vote for its influential candidate grading system, argued the gun measures in the bill were too loosely written and would violate gun owners’ constitutional rights. Most Republicans agree — including Lesko, who acknowledged in a recent video recorded by a conservative news site that her ex-husband “really should have had his gun rights taken away” but that under the Democratic bill he would “not have the ability of due process to defend himself — this is just wrong.”
NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said the group is not opposed to the remainder of the bill but said gun-rights opponents are “intentionally politicizing the Violence Against Women Act as a smokescreen” to pursue their agenda.
“It’s appalling that the gun control lobby and anti-gun politicians are trivializing the serious issue of domestic violence,” she said.
Buoyed by a more-widespread embrace of gun control in their own ranks, Democrats have seized on the NRA’s opposition with the support of outside activist groups who have been pushing to expand prohibited gun sales.
“Members have a decision to make,” Pelosi tweeted last week, “will they protect survivors of stalking & domestic abuse? Or are they willing to allow their convicted stalkers & abusers to have access to firearms?”
Other Democrats have been even more explicit in calling out the GOP opposition to VAWA as a political issue for women. Asked about the lack of bipartisanship on the bill — it has only one Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania — Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), a chief sponsor, said the optics of the GOP opposition were obvious.
“What message does this send to women?” she asked. “What message does this send to Republican women about the welcome that they receive from Republicans? Why would you run for office?”
For 33 Republicans — including Wagner, who represents a suburban St. Louis district she won by 4 points last year — it was better to back the bill.
“If we’re dealing with a Democrat majority, this is about finding a certain level of bipartisanship,” she said, noting GOP alternatives she might prefer will not stand a chance in the House. “These are the only votes that count.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.