House Republicans are poised to unveil their version of the Violence Against Women Act as early as next week, eager to put behind them an issue that has been a political hot potato over a key voting bloc.
Staffers from leadership offices and the Judiciary and Natural Resources committees, which have jurisdiction over the bill, have met in Speaker John A. Boehner’s office on each of the last two days to figure out a path forward.
GOP leadership staffers said many decisions have yet to be made, but what seems resolved is that the House will put forward a bill separate from the Senate version, which passed that chamber last week with 78 votes.
“The legislation that you’ll see we believe will be stronger than what the Senate passed,” said a senior GOP leadership aide. “We’re trying to determine what best we can do to make sure the language that passes meets our top two priorities: protecting women and prosecuting offenders.”
Of course, on those two priorities, the parties can agree. What remains to be seen is how Republicans navigate the sensitive social issues the bill brings into play.
The Senate version would extend the bill’s domestic violence protections to LGBT victims as well as undocumented immigrants, and, for the first time, it would allow tribal courts to prosecute non-tribal offenders, which brings up jurisdictional issues.
The House version of the bill in the 112th Congress did not include those provisions, as Republicans held that they were more politically motivated than anything.
“What we saw was moving goal posts and political attacks and those haven’t stopped,” said the leadership aide. “There were a lot of people on the other side of the aisle, the other side of the building, who were more interested in having an issue than a solution.”
As the Republican Party tries to reach out to Latinos and women, this bill could be an indication of just how far its members will allow the outreach to extend.
Still, some House Republicans have said that more than anything, they object to the cost of the bill — more than $600 million annually through 2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Heritage Action key-voted its objection to the Senate bill for still other reasons. If those issues keep GOP members from voting for it on the House floor, Boehner could need Democrats to pass the measure.
House Democrats, however, are unlikely to support anything that deviates from the Senate-passed legislation, and Boehner could find himself boxed in, as he did on fiscal cliff and disaster spending votes at the end of last year.
“We have the opportunity to pass a bill that has passed the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly,” said Drew Hammill, spokesman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “It is absolutely unconscionable that we wouldn’t just take up this bill now and pass it.”
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has been working on the bill behind the scenes, a holdover from last year when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. implored him to act on a bill Biden once sponsored when he was in the Senate.
Republicans, though, are aware of the scrutiny they have received from the left that their refusal to take up the Senate bill is “anti-woman.” Last Congress they gave messaging duties for the bill to then-Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Fla., a one-time victim of domestic abuse and a law enforcement officer. They are likely to again delegate the chief messaging on the bill to a female member of their conference, perhaps the highest-ranking woman, Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington.
The question also remains whether leadership would bypass regular order and bring the measure straight to the floor, as House Democrats have called on them to do, or whether the Judiciary Committee would hear it first, as was the case last year. When asked last week, Boehner said only, “it may, it may not.”
“We’re fully committed to doing anything we can to protect women in or society, and I expect that the House will act in a timely fashion in some way,” he said.
The amendment process in committee could be politically perilous. Arizona GOP Rep. Trent Franks, chairman of a subcommittee that could have jurisdiction over the bill, said he would be keen on bringing abortion into the discussion.
“There are those of us that when we see something like aborting little girls because they’re little girls instead of boys, if that’s not violence against women, I’m deceived,” he said. “I think it should go to committee. I just want to make sure the true position of the House is reflected.”
Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., declined to comment on the matter, and his spokeswoman, Kathryn Rexrode, did not return multiple requests for comment.