House set to pass Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, with renewed hope for Senate action

GOP opposition to gun, LGBTQ provisions remains

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, conducts a news conference at the Capitol Visitor Center on Sept. 23, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, conducts a news conference at the Capitol Visitor Center on Sept. 23, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 16, 2021 at 5:51pm, Updated March 17, 2021 at 10:37am

Corrected 6:40 p.m. | The House will vote to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act this week, after standoffs over LGBTQ issues and gun rights prevented an update of the law for years.

Authorization for the law, which provides funding for federal prosecution of domestic violence as well as state and local grant programs, lapsed in 2019. The legislation has support from a handful of Republicans heading into Thursday’s debate, but it has also attracted GOP opposition over provisions that lower the threshold to bar someone from buying a gun based on certain misdemeanors.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said the chamber will likely pass the legislation Thursday and blamed Mitch McConnell for stymieing the process in the last Congress when he was Senate majority leader.

“It is a shame that we have not in the last Congress passed this bill that we sent to the Senate and, like so many other very important pieces of legislation, Sen. McConnell and the Republicans in the Senate simply ignored,” said Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat.

The House will debate 41 amendments made in order under a rule advanced Tuesday, including a substitute amendment from New York Republican Elise Stefanik that would simply reauthorize VAWA as it currently exists for one year without updates or expansion. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has voiced opposition to a one-year extension.

A bipartisan amendment would establish federal criminal liability for individuals who share private, sexually explicit or nude images without the consent of those photographed. In 2019, California Democratic Rep. Katie Hill was a victim of this practice, known as “revenge porn,” and resigned after nude images were published without her consent and following allegations that she had a relationship with a staffer.

Hill alleges that those nude images, published without her permission on two news sites, were part of a “smear campaign built around cyber exploitation” executed by her former husband.

Originally passed in 1994 to address the prevalence of domestic and sexual violence, VAWA has been reauthorized several times. It created programs to enhance investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women and authorized grants to state and local law enforcement.

The authorization for the bill lapsed at the end of 2018, although programs have still been funded by congressional appropriations.

In the last Congress, bipartisan Senate talks broke down primarily over provisions to restrict the gun rights of an expanded number of convicts. Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who took the lead among Republicans in the talks, accused Democrats of playing politics, while Democrats said their GOP colleagues had bowed to the National Rifle Association.

The base language of the bill the House will debate Wednesday is almost identical to language that passed the chamber in 2019 on a 263-158 bipartisan vote. New provisions in this year’s bill, sponsored by Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, would create a $40 million dedicated fund for “culturally specific victim services programs” for organizations in specific communities or to combat practices such as female genital mutilation.

Ruth Glenn, the CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she thinks the change in congressional control will prove critical to eventually passing the reauthorization. Nearly three dozen national organizations have pushed for changes since the 2013 reauthorization, including restricting access to guns for people who violate the law.

“We have a different Congress, quite frankly, that really will understand that philosophy of making sure that everyone is safe, including our LGBTQI community, and including the necessity of making sure that those that harm others in relationships or nonrelationships — dating, for instance — don’t have the means by which to have another tool to hurt someone,” Glenn said.

Glenn said her group and 30 others nationwide would work to convince senators of the benefits of the legislation and help get it across that chamber’s 60-vote threshold.

A quarter of women experience severe intimate-partner physical violence, and 1 in 7 have been stalked by an intimate partner to the point of feeling very fearful or believing that she or someone close to her would be harmed or killed, according to Glenn’s group.

Republican opposition resurfaces

Once again, firearms provisions and specific protections for LGBTQ victims are raising opposition from Republican members.

California Rep. Tom McClintock voiced concerns Tuesday that the bill’s firearms provisions would impose a lifetime ban on gun ownership for those convicted of “nondomestic, nonviolent misdemeanor crimes,” in reference to misdemeanor stalking.

McClintock said recent VAWA reauthorizations have “strayed farther and farther from its original purpose into a woke world in which gender has become optional and the law has become fluid.”

Some Republicans take issue with the expansion of the definition of domestic violence to include psychological and economic abuse, in addition to physical violence, and the lack of faith-based exemptions for some program providers.

McClintock referenced provisions centered on providing shelter to LGBTQ victims, saying the bill would put women in danger by allowing “men who identify as women” to access women’s shelters and other resources.

Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole called the Democratic-led VAWA reauthorization effort a “lost opportunity” on an issue with broad bipartisan support. He said the measure includes provisions that are “unnecessarily partisan” and warned that the last time the House considered a VAWA reauthorization without broad bipartisan support, it was untouched by the Senate and never signed into law.

“I’m afraid we are running that risk again,” he said.

Cole said the bill could provide important changes for tribes like his own, the Chickasaw Nation.

“Not only does VAWA provide critical tools for addressing domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking in the broader community, but it also provides specific support for Native American tribes in their efforts to end violence against women in their own communities,” he said.

More than half of all Indigenous women are subject to sexual violence in their lifetime and, for them, murder is the third-leading cause of death, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

M. Brent Leonhard, an attorney for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said the proposed reauthorization would give key expansions of tribal jurisdiction over crimes committed by nonmembers. The 2013 authorization allowed tribes to prosecute nonmembers for domestic violence, dating violence and violation of protective orders.

“So if they’re trying to tamper with a witness, you can’t charge that. If they’re trying to tamper with a jury, you can’t charge that. If they assault staff member of a court, you can’t charge that,” under current law, Leonhard said.

Bipartisan Senate talks

Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin said he’s part of a bipartisan group bringing VAWA reauthorization through the Senate. A committee aide said the Illinois Democrat plans to introduce another version of the bill in the next few weeks.

“We’re ready to move. I’m the lead sponsor on it, by virtue of being chairman of the committee, I believe. And we have a bipartisan group of senators ready to move on it,” Durbin said.

With Joe Biden, one of the sponsors of the original 1994 bill, in the White House, Democrats are hopeful they can get the measure through the chamber and eventually signed into law. Ernst said her priorities include addressing shelter needs in rural areas as part of a bipartisan compromise.

“We are hoping to get there, and I’ve been working on some legislation obviously following on to the last Congress, but we are hoping that we can come together and really get this resolved. Pass it and have a bipartisan bill,” she said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she has discussed a Senate version of the bill with some of her colleagues as well as Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Murkowski said she has been most involved on the tribal provisions.

“The Senate version is in the works, there are a good number of us working on it,” she said.

This report has been revised to reflect the correct partisan affiliation for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.

Lindsey McPherson and Jim Saksa contributed to this report.