Senate Democrats Introduce Violence Against Women Act As GOP Flails

The House passed its bill months ago expanding protections for Native American and LGBTQ victims of abuse. The Senate has done nada.

WASHINGTON ― Senate Republicans have stalled for months on passing a bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, so on Tuesday, Democrats went ahead and introduced their own.

All 47 Democrats signed onto the House-passed VAWA bill, which would renew the landmark law through 2024 and expand protections for vulnerable populations like LGBTQ and Native American victims of domestic violence.

The bill passed the House in April with broad support from lawmakers, including 33 Republicans. It builds on current law by improving tribal access to federal crime information databases; reaffirming tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indigenous perpetrators of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking; explicitly stating that grant recipients are allowed to train staff on identifying and stopping discrimination against LGBTQ victims of abuse; and providing resources to address bullying of young people.

“Make no mistake, there’s a dire need for this legislation,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. “More than a third of all women will be raped, assaulted or stalked. And the numbers are worse for Native American women, of whom some 84 percent will experience violence. Making VAWA stronger will help us lower those tragic numbers.”

The landmark 1994 law actually lapsed in February, which is an embarrassing failure by Congress given how vital it is. It’s not clear how much the lapse has already affected federal funding and grants for domestic abuse programs around the country.

Feinstein had been working with Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) for eight months on a potential bipartisan VAWA bill, but their efforts fell apart last week. There appear to be three sticking points, which are the same sticking points that drove 157 House Republicans to oppose the bill in April: expanded protections for LGBTQ people and Native American women, and a gun safety provision.

“The bill goes into more and more jeopardy the longer it waits,” Feinstein told reporters Tuesday. “It was obvious that we weren’t going to come to an agreement at that time, so I indicated to [Ernst] that I was going to introduce [the House-passed bill] and happy to continue meeting. The three points, I think, are the points of issue and we’ve asked for some response from the other side but haven’t gotten one to date.”

The way Ernst tells it, Democrats walked away from discussions because Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wants to play politics.

“Election-year politics are in full swing and, once again, Democrats are putting politics ahead of people, ahead of survivors,” Ernst said in a statement. “I’m beyond disappointed; shame on Senate Democrats for choosing to walk away and playing politics.”

The problem with Ernst’s argument, though, is that her party controls the Senate and the bills that move. She and other Republicans had eight months to put forward some kind of VAWA bill, the House-passed version or otherwise, and have produced nothing.

An Ernst spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on when or if Ernst plans to introduce a Republican VAWA bill, and whether Ernst supports the expanded protections for LGBTQ people and Native American women in the House-passed bill.

Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) were trying to find a bipartisan way forward on reauthorizing the V
Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) were trying to find a bipartisan way forward on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. But eight months later, that effort is in the toilet.

The gun safety provision in the House bill was the biggest reason it drew GOP detractors. Under current federal law, only people convicted of domestic violence offenses against spouses or family members can lose their gun rights. The House VAWA bill adds people convicted of abusing their dating partners, closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole.” It also prohibits people convicted of misdemeanor stalking offenses from owning or buying firearms, as well as abusers subject to temporary protective orders.

The National Rifle Association was pushing Republicans to oppose the bill over that provision and warned that a vote in favor of the bill would negatively affect their NRA rating.

Democrats know their bill won’t go anywhere in the Senate. But their decision to publicly sign onto the House bill is at least a show that they’re trying to get something moving.

“Just so it’s crystal, 100 percent clear, the reason this bill isn’t going anywhere is because the NRA and the need that Mitch McConnell has to ... not bring any legislation to the floor that has any gun safety provision in there,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) told reporters. “That’s the reason. OK? Everybody got that?”

Asked what it will take to get a VAWA bill that both parties can support in both chambers, Feinstein said the House-passed bill already has bipartisan support.

“The fact that this passed the House with such a substantial margin, and the fact that there are 33 Republicans from the House who voted for it really are your answers,” she said. “This is not a Republican or Democratic bill. This is a survivor bill.”