After years of messy partisan fights and failures, Congress on Thursday finally reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act and expanded its protections for particularly vulnerable groups of people, including Native American women and LGBTQ survivors of violence.
Lawmakers tucked the VAWA bill into a massive, fast-moving $1.5 trillion government spending package that sailed through the House and Senate this week. As a result, people may not have noticed that Congress just renewed the lifesaving law too.
The VAWA bill that President Joe Biden is expected to sign into law later Friday will reauthorize the law’s programs through 2027. It also includes new provisions like expanded access to forensic exams for victims of sexual assault in rural communities; new grants for community-specific services for LGBTQ survivors of domestic violence; and new jurisdiction to tribal courts to go after non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault, child abuse, stalking, sex trafficking and assaults on tribal law enforcement officers on tribal lands.
The expanded protections for Native American women are particularly notable, given the appallingly high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault that Indigenous women face on reservations by non-Native men. More than 84% of Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetime, and the vast majority of Native victims of violence ― 96% of women and 89% of men ― report being victimized by a non-Native person.
That is in addition to an ongoing national crisis of Native American women simply disappearing and being murdered.
VAWA’s passage marked a rare moment in today’s Congress with leaders in both parties taking victory laps together.
“This is a major advancement for protecting women from domestic violence and sexual assault ― a tragedy faced by one in three women in this country,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), one of the bill’s sponsors. “Passing this legislation to prevent domestic violence and support survivors is long overdue.”
“Every Native person should feel safe in their own homes and communities,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), also a bill sponsor and the senator who led the effort to strengthen VAWA’s tribal provisions. “Jurisdictional issues should not deny safety or justice. Tribes are valuable partners with the State and Federal governments and can help turn the tide against violence in Native communities.”
It’s been an embarrassingly bumpy road for VAWA reauthorization in Congress. The law’s authorization lapsed three years ago. Once upon a time, this was legislation that passed unanimously in both chambers, and it was uncontroversial to support programs credited with stopping violence against women and saving people’s lives.
But the last time Congress renewed VAWA was in 2013, and that was only after an ugly, partisan fight over adding new protections for Native American, LGBTQ and immigrant victims of domestic violence. That authorization lapsed in 2018, and, despite the House passing bipartisan bills to renew it, Senate Republicans wouldn’t unite on anything.
As a result, VAWA’s authorization expired in 2019. That doesn’t mean the law itself expired; it means there’s been uncertainty for its grant programs and no ability to update the law with new protections that domestic violence advocates say are badly needed.
The reason Congress was finally able to get VAWA done this time is largely because of a bipartisan push in the Senate, led by Durbin, Murkowski, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). For months, if not years, they led behind-the-scenes negotiations on what was acceptable to both parties in the bill, and what was not.
In stark contrast to Senate Republicans not even being united on their own VAWA bill in 2019, this time around, Republicans and Democrats introduced a joint bill last month with 10 Republican co-sponsors already on it ― meaning it already had the votes to pass the Senate, presuming those 10 Republicans voted for it along with all 50 Democrats.
Democrats had to make some concessions, though, and their biggest one was stripping out a gun safety provision that would have prohibited people who have been convicted of abusing their dating partners from owning firearms, closing the “boyfriend loophole.” Most Republicans simply refused to support a VAWA bill that included any kind of restrictions on gun access. The National Rifle Association, among other gun rights groups, opposed the provision.
Even Murkowski and Ernst tried to keep the gun language in the bill, along with Durbin and Feinstein, a Senate Democratic aide told HuffPost last month. But in the end, they didn’t have the GOP votes to pass the bill with the provision in it.
“It was a really difficult decision,” said the aide, who requested anonymity to speak freely about private conversations. “But it came down to we don’t want this to be a messaging bill. We want this to be a bill that can get to Biden’s desk.”
VAWA is a major priority for Biden. The 1994 law is one of his signature accomplishments. It was the first major federal legislative package focused on stopping violence against women, and it has since provided billions of dollars in grants for lifesaving programs. Rates of domestic violence declined by more than 50% between 1993 and 2008 after VAWA became law, per the Bureau of Justice Statistics.