House votes to reauthorize, expand Violence Against Women Act

GOP opposition focuses on gun and LGBTQ provisions

Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., right, and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, at a news conference in the Capitol on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., right, and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, at a news conference in the Capitol on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 17, 2021 at 5:37pm

The House voted Wednesday to reauthorize the lapsed Violence Against Women Act, but the proposal was opposed by most Republicans because of provisions dealing with gun rights and LGBTQ victims' access to services.

The 244-172 vote sent the measure to the Senate for the second time since the law’s authorization lapsed in 2019.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., brought up her own family’s history with domestic violence in pushing for passage of the bill at a press conference Wednesday. Dingell spotlighted sections that would expand provisions in existing law that bar domestic abusers from owning firearms by including some misdemeanors.

“It's not just my story. It's the story of my siblings, and we don't forget about hiding in closets, or our father taking locks off doors or grabbing a gun from my father so he wouldn't kill my mother, and being convinced that we would die this time,” Dingell said. “This bill is needed, as guns in volatile situations are dangerous and have devastating consequences.”

More than 1 in 3 women have experienced sexual violence during their lifetime, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Biden an original sponsor

First passed in 1994, VAWA enshrines legal protections for victims of domestic and sexual violence. The original bill was championed by then-Sen. Joe Biden, and was reauthorized and updated in 2000, 2005 and 2013.

The House bill would expand victim services and reauthorize for five years grant programs for the criminal justice response to domestic and sexual violence. It also includes provisions that would expand housing options for survivors, and allow tribal jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of sexual violence on tribal lands.

The White House Office of Management and Budget released a statement on Wednesday saying that "the administration strongly supports" reauthorizing VAWA.

The OMB statement praised the bill for recognizing “the need to provide protection and services to all victims of abuse and includes proposals to strengthen existing policies that were supported by both Democrats and Republicans last year. The Administration urges swift passage of this legislation."

In 2019, the bill received support from 33 House Republicans, and the current version is cosponsored by Pennsylvania Republican Brian Fitzpatrick.

Other Republicans, including New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, criticized Democrats for moving forward with what they called an overly partisan bill. Stefanik pointed out that the process shut out the record number of Republican women who joined the chamber after the 2020 election.

Stefanik said Democrats “shunned the bipartisan history of VAWA and advanced a bill filled with controversial provisions, rejecting Republican offers to work in good faith and prioritize the well-being of women and children.”

Objections to transgender rights

She and others criticized the bill for restricting gun rights, as well as the expansion of LGBT rights. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, couched some of his criticism in statements that denied the existence of transgender people, referring to them as “biological males” who would be housed in shelters and prisons.

“It seems to me that many on the left decided that could use this critical legislation that’s intended to protect women and girls from violence as a vehicle to promote their far-left political agenda,” Chabot said.

Government data does not currently account for nonbinary or transgender people by disaggregating sex from gender. But existing research suggests transgender people face high rates of intimate partner violence and additional barriers to receiving help.

The Justice Department's Office for Victims of Crime points to research that says that half of transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives.

An amendment proposed by GOP Rep. Anne Wagner of Missouri, allowing the attorney general to bar entities found to have misused VAWA grant funds from participating for five years, was adopted on a 242-174 vote.

Ex-Rep. Katie Hill attends session

Former Rep. Katie Hill was at the Capitol for the votes, and her former colleagues adopted an amendment addressing the issue of cyber exploitation, which prompted her resignation in 2019.

The California Democrat resigned after nude images were published without her consent following allegations that she had a relationship with a staffer. A bipartisan amendment that was adopted would establish federal criminal liability for individuals who share "revenge porn," as this practice is called.

Stefanik offered one of the two Republican amendments that were voted down 177-249, which would have extended the authorization for just one year.

The chamber adopted more than three dozen bipartisan amendments to the bill en bloc in a 228-197 vote. They included funding for document replacement for victims and protecting the immigration status of domestic violence victims.

The measure now heads to the Senate, where bipartisan talks have already started. Democrats would need Republicans to join them to advance any VAWA proposal to reach the 60 votes required to pass most legislation.

Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski is part of the negotiations, focusing especially on provisions related to tribal rights and the specific needs of indigenous communities.

"I think it's critically important that we advance VAWA," she said.