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Violence Against Women Act's Future Remains Uncertain

Republicans, Democrats Struggle to Pass Historically Simple Reauthorization

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Speaker John Boehner’s move signals that the GOP would like to wrap up this women’s issue as the elections draw near because Democrats have used it for political purposes.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) may have named conferees Monday to negotiate a final agreement on the Violence Against Women Act, but there was one glaring problem: Senate Republicans and Democrats have yet to agree to a conference.

In one of those only-on-the-Hill–type sagas, both parties are still struggling to find the time and resources to finish a bill that traditionally gets reauthorized easily and passed the Senate on a broad bipartisan vote earlier this year. But the move from Boehner at a minimum sends a strong signal that the GOP would like to have a potent women’s issue off the table as the elections draw nearer because Democrats have used it to pit Republicans against female voters.

“Completing work on legislation to renew and strengthen the Violence Against Women Act is critical in our efforts to combat domestic violence and sexual assault,” Boehner said in a statement. “The law has broad, bipartisan support in both chambers, and I’m announcing our negotiators today in the hopes that we can begin to resolve the differences between the House and Senate bills. The House is ready and willing to begin those discussions, and I would urge Senate Democrats to come to the table so this critical legislation can be sent to the president for his signature as soon as possible.”

It’s not that simple, though. In May, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried to attach the Senate-approved language to the shell of a House-approved revenue bill in order to remove procedural obstacles to a conference committee, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blocked that effort.

Even if GOP Senators decide to allow the appointment of conferees, both chambers are scheduled to go into recess next week, and there are few legislative days left to act. Moreover, the legislation has become a political hot potato since dueling bills were passed by both chambers last spring, and both sides are betting that if they stick the other party with the blame, they can win a messaging battle that could be important in November.

The critical difference between the two competing bills is Senate language extending domestic violence protections to the gay and transgender community as well as to immigrants and undocumented women. Beyond GOP opposition to those provisions, extending emergency visas to abused, undocumented immigrants caused the procedural problem for Democrats. The provision would levy fees on new immigration visas. Any bill that generates revenue must originate in the House.

Democrats now face a variety of paths forward, but many of them would require trust in or cooperation from the Republicans, and Senate leaders might just decide that they’re better off waiting until the lame-duck session instead of making further concessions on a bill for which they once had GOP support.

Senate Democrats could agree to move forward to the conference without approving a bill that complies with the “blue-slip” rule, but they automatically would be conceding the provisions regarding undocumented women by doing so. They could try to formally reopen debate on the bill using the same language but attached to a House shell, but that would require Republicans to vote the same way as they did in April. And GOP leaders might not be willing to go along with Democrats for the second time, especially now that they’re three months closer to the elections.

Alternatively, Democrats could continue to leverage the issue against Republicans, hoping that it secures them more independent female voters in November. They scoffed at Boehner’s appointments Monday.

“Republicans blocked a conference when Sen. Reid tried to set one up in May, causing VAWA to languish for months. Appointing conferees at this point is simply another transparent delaying tactic by Republicans,” Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said. “The main difference between the House and Senate versions is that the Senate version is overwhelmingly bipartisan. If Republicans truly want to resolve this issue, they will pass the Senate’s bipartisan compromise right away.”

Democratic sources suggested that a barrage of press releases and media availabilities have put pressure on the Republicans and that Boehner’s selection Monday of conferees was an indication their tactics have been working.

Boehner announced that Reps. Sandy Adams (Fla.), Mary Bono Mack (Calif.), Trey Gowdy (S.C.), Nan Hayworth (N.Y.), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.) and Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (Texas) will represent the House in the talks.

All of those Members voted for the House-approved legislation.

It’s unclear exactly how Democrats will proceed or when they’ll make a decision, but when McConnell objected to the conference in May, he said, “This is a problem of the majority’s own making.

“It is not our fault that Senate Democrats waited until well after VAWA expired to start moving a bill,” McConnell said on the floor. “It is not our fault that their bill would add to the debt. And it is not our fault that our friends waited until the last minute to try to fix this problem, and in the course of doing so, they created another problem.”

Perhaps the largest questions are whether either side can score points over procedural squabbles or whether in the broader context of an election focused heavily on jobs and the economy, it will even matter.

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