Why some Republicans switched votes on bills they previously supported

Lawmakers changed positions on legislation about policing, guns, immigration, anti-discrimination

Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart voted against two bills this year that he supported last Congress.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart voted against two bills this year that he supported last Congress. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 6, 2021 at 6:00am

Twenty House Republicans switched from voting “yes” last Congress to “no” this year on Democrat-led bills dealing with issues such as gun sales, women’s rights and immigration.

Of roughly a dozen bills Democrats brought back to the House floor this year because they died in the GOP-controlled Senate last session, most still received some GOP support. But seven saw at least one previous Republican supporter drop off.

The rise in GOP opposition may seem connected to the 2022 midterm elections, when House Democrats’ tenuous hold on power is at stake and Republican moderates may face heat in primaries. But in interviews and statements, the vote-switchers mostly cited policy and process, saying Democrats dropped GOP-backed provisions from some bills and declined to incorporate Republican input into others.

Only in one case did a Republican acknowledge changing his view.

“I know a little bit more now than I knew then,” New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew said about dropping his support for a bill to extend the deadline for ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. 

Van Drew came to Congress in 2019 as a Democrat but switched to the GOP that December. His vote in the last Congress for a measure to extend the time states have to ratify the ERA came after his party switch. He now says it is “wildly unconstitutional.”

“It’s more of a political statement than anything else,” he said. “It could affect, like some of the other bills, women in sports, men in sports and some of the other issues that are out there. So it’s just a matter of education. You go along a little bit more, and I just realized that it was something that I wasn’t comfortable with.”

‘The court ruled’

Illinois’ Rodney Davis had a different reason for switching his vote on the ERA measure. Four Republicans, including one freshman, supported the bill this year, compared with five last Congress.

“The last time the ERA vote came up last Congress, my new attorney general had just filed suit for the state of Illinois to delay this process from having to start over again. I thought I was trying to be deferential to my state officials. And I voted for the extension to give them a chance to fight it out in court,” Davis told CQ Roll Call. “The court ruled that they needed to start over, so that’s changed. … It’s been decided.”

A different court ruling influenced New York Rep. Elise Stefanik’s decision to switch her vote on the Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

A year after her 2019 “yes” vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the existing law that bans employment discrimination on the basis of “sex” applies to sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Stefanik said the decision “serves as an important protection against discrimination” based on sexual orientation, which she called “unlawful and wrong.”

“While I voted for previous versions of this legislation before the Supreme Court ruling, I have long been concerned that this bill goes far beyond non-discrimination and eliminates the role of single gendered organizations and activities throughout our society,” she said in a statement. “Democratic leaders had an opportunity to work across the aisle to make changes and accept bipartisan amendments to protect families and religious organizations and they failed to do so.”

Stefanik said she plans to co-introduce an alternative that “strengthens protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and provides important religious and Constitutional protections that are absent in H.R. 5.”

The other Republican who changed his position on the Equality Act, Florida’s Mario Diaz-Balart, cited Democrats’ unwillingness to consider changes. He also plans to co-introduce the GOP alternative.

“I have always fought against discrimination in all its forms, which is why I voted for this bill last Congress and outlined some severe flaws that needed to be addressed to obtain bipartisan support,” he said in a statement. “House Democratic Leadership had ample time to make these changes, but sadly, they ignored multiple good faith efforts by my colleagues and instead doubled down on some of the most troubling issues, including sabotaging religious freedom.”

With the loss of Stefanik, Diaz-Balart and three retirees, GOP support for the Equality Act dropped from eight votes last Congress to three this year. 

A second switch

Diaz-Balart is the only Republican to switch his votes on two bills. He and fellow Floridian Brian Mast voted last month against Democrats’ bill to expand background checks for gun purchases, HR 8, after supporting it in 2019. The number of GOP votes, eight, was unchanged from last Congress because of freshman support this year. 

“My position in support of background checks has not changed,” Diaz-Balart said in a statement. “Regrettably, the radical left altered this bill and, in the process, made it far worse and indefensible.”

Mast has similar reasons.

“I was the lead co-sponsor on it. I wrote a lot of the safeguards in it. They were taken out this time,” he told CQ Roll Call.

Democrats removed a provision to prohibit the attorney general from requiring firearm sellers to keep background check records, a safeguard Republicans feel is necessary to protect privacy and prevent the government from establishing a national firearms registry. 

Provisions Republicans secured in the prior version to prevent the attorney general from forcing firearm sellers to facilitate gun transfers to the government were also removed.

“I guess they were too conservative of safeguards for this progressive Congress,” Mast said.

‘All for naught’

On another bill, it was a provision Democrats did not change that lost GOP support.

Three Republicans voted for Democrats’ policing overhaul last Congress, one of whom has since retired. The other two, Michigan’s Fred Upton and Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick, said at the time they wouldn’t support a final bill, negotiated with the Senate, unless it included a compromise on ending qualified immunity, which shields law enforcement officials from legal accountability for actions performed on the job. 

The measure stalled in the GOP-led Senate last Congress, but Upton and Fitzpatrick hoped suggestions they made during negotiations with lead House sponsor Karen Bass would prompt changes in the qualified immunity provision this Congress.

“We made really, really good progress. And it was all for naught because they didn’t take any of it,” Upton told CQ Roll Call. “So I said, here they are, coming back with the same bill. They didn’t take the things that we’re working on, and so I’m not going to be part of it.” 

Fitzpatrick, a former FBI special agent, said in a statement: “If this legislation is recklessly implemented, there is no question that it would, in turn, do significant damage to the law enforcement profession and ultimately make communities across our nation less safe.”

Bass said she never committed to changing the provision but wasn’t upset about their stances. “I understood why they switched their votes, and so it’s not a problem,” the California Democrat said.

A lack of bipartisanship was also the reason one Republican, Nebraska’s Jeff Fortenberry, voted against a wilderness and public lands package he supported last Congress. 

“I agree with a number of items in the current bill. But it was a protest vote in part about the process. Republicans were given no opportunity for constructive input,” he said in a statement.

Still, GOP support for the wilderness package grew from six votes last session to eight this year. 

The most switches

The bill on which most Republicans switched positions was the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which seeks to combat domestic violence with funding for state and local grant programs and federal prosecutions. 

Eight Republicans — Tim Burchett of Tennessee, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, Michael R. Turner of Ohio, Ann Wagner of Missouri, Jackie Walorski of Indiana, Michael Waltz of Florida, Roger Williams of Texas and Lee Zeldin of New York — voted against VAWA reauthorization this year after supporting a similar measure last Congress. Total GOP support dropped from 33 votes to 29.

“Last Congress I authored multiple amendments to improve the overall VAWA legislation and I was grateful they were included in the final bill. This week, however, Democrats denied two of my common sense amendments that protected sex trafficking victims and banned sex-selection abortions,” Wagner said in a statement.

Walorski said she voted for the previous bill to move toward “needed improvements.”

“But since then Democrats have refused to work in good faith with Republicans,” she said in a statement. “The partisan bill passed by the House … will weaken protections for survivors, infringe on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans, and prioritize radical policies on race and gender over fighting domestic violence and sexual abuse.”

Waltz voted against this year’s version because “new eligibility criteria, purpose, uses, and requirements were added to grant programs to exclude or disadvantage religious non-profits from VAWA resources,” his spokesman said by email. 

Zeldin’s spokesperson said he voted no because Democrats “jammed through controversial provisions such as partisan immigration proposals.”

Spokespersons for the other VAWA vote switchers did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Not in the mood’

The most politically charged switches came on measure that would provide a new legal status for migrant farmworkers. 

Some Republicans didn’t want to broaden legal immigration categories while there’s an influx of migrants at the southern border, for which they blame President Joe Biden. Democrats say the uptick started under the Trump administration and is consistent with seasonal surges.

“Honestly, I’m not in the mood to vote for immigration bills with what’s happening on the southern border and the total blind eye the administration’s turning to it,” Oklahoma’s Tom Cole said.

Cole said his local farm bureau came out more forcefully against the bill this year and concluded that “almost none” of the impacted migrant workers would come to Oklahoma. 

Cole was one of four Republicans to switch his vote on that bill, along with Idaho’s Russ Fulcher, West Virginia’s David B. McKinley and Ohio’s Steve Stivers. Total Republican support dropped from 34 Republican votes last Congress to 30 last month. 

“Under the Trump administration, we actually had the ability to regulate the border with a decent process. Right now, it’s a free-for-all,” Fulcher told CQ Roll Call.

Similarly, Stivers, according to a spokesperson, “does not trust the Biden administration” on the border situation. 

“He is concerned that President Biden would use any visa reform as a loophole to grant amnesty to every immigrant, regardless of their situation,” the Stivers spokesperson said in an email. “Therefore, he feels that any immigration policy, including visa reform, must be clear and not leave any room for implementation beyond Congressional intent.”

McKinley’s office did not return a request for comment.

Chris Cioffi and Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.