House Democrats launch push on VAWA expansion

The effort does more than extend the law — it adds a contentious gun control provision

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pictured talking to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., at a rally April 2, wants to pass an expanded version of the Violence Against Women Act rather than extend current law. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats take their first step this week to expand the Violence Against Women Act in an effort to prompt the Senate to do more than simply extend the lapsed domestic violence law — and they've included a contentious gun control provision.

The House is expected to pass the bill to reauthorize the 1994 law and add language to expand housing protections for victims, give more help to Native American women and enhance law enforcement tools through grants.

It would also expand the category of who could lose the right to possess guns under the law, adding those convicted of dating violence or misdemeanor stalking to close the so-called “boyfriend loophole.”

That gun provision could become a focus of the debate, since the National Rifle Association reportedly will score the votes on the bill, and it is among the changes that make it unlikely the Republican-controlled Senate would go along with the House version.

Flashback — Violence Against Women Act witness: Title IX is moot ‘because men can be women’

But several Democrats argued that passing their version, which they touted as a life-saving measure, would solidify their preferences ahead of any conference committee if the Senate decides to pass its own version.

So far, the Senate has made efforts to reauthorize the law through the end of the fiscal year, most recently as part of a disaster aid bill that fell short of the votes needed Monday on a procedural motion. Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is working with California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein on a Senate proposal, but said last week that the text is still being negotiated.

“Our calculation was that we’re in charge now, we can pass a bill that we think is a comprehensive bill to protect all women,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland told reporters Tuesday. “I’m hopeful that the Senate will take it up … or ask to go to conference on it. But we need to reauthorize it.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi set the stage for this week’s debate and floor vote in February, when she did not agree to a short-term extension of VAWA in a fiscal 2019 spending bill. A leadership aide said agreeing to a short-term extension would reduce the incentive for the Senate to negotiate with the House on a broader reauthorization.

Pelosi said Thursday that opposition from the NRA would not jeopardize the bill in the House.

“There’s very discrete provisions that relate to protecting women’s safety. And they’re against it,” Pelosi said. “I don’t see that it has much impact on the passage of the bill in the House of Representatives.”

When the VAWA extension was excluded from the final fiscal 2019 spending package, a senior Democratic aide said it would have “zero impact” because the grant programs related to the law were funded in the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill contained in the package.

Rep. Tom Cole said Tuesday that there are some changes that Republicans would accept, such as the Native American tribal provisions, and he would vote for it. But he said the gun measure is something Republicans generally wouldn’t support and Democrats need to be willing “to sit down with the Senate and the president.”

“You’re taking something that should be an easy bipartisan reauthorization of existing law and complicating it to make a political point,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “You’re certainly free to do that, but in the meantime, you should have at least extended it through the fiscal year so that you can make whatever point and then sit down and negotiate.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell, when asked about legislative strategy and the gun provision, said that “sometimes things are as simple as they should be.”

“If we’re truly trying to protect women, then how can you not put that in there?” the Michigan Democrat said.

A rule approved Tuesday provides for debate on 40 amendments to the bill, which would reauthorize the law through fiscal 2024. A vote on final passage is expected Thursday.

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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