WASHINGTON ― It’s bad enough that Congress let the Violence Against Women Act lapse in February. But 10 months later, legislation to renew the landmark 1994 law has hit a wall in the Senate, where Republicans aren’t even united behind their own bill.
The House did its part in April to re-up VAWA, which, to date, has provided billions of dollars in grants for programs aimed at combatting domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. It passed a bipartisan bill that renews VAWA for five more years and expands protections for vulnerable populations like LGBTQ and Native American victims of domestic violence. It also includes a gun safety provision that would prohibit people from owning firearms who have been convicted of abusing their dating partners, closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole” in current law.
The Senate didn’t do much until last month, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced that she and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) had failed to come up with a bipartisan bill after months of trying. Feinstein went on to lead all 47 Democrats in endorsing the House-passed bill and introducing it in the Senate. Ernst responded by accusing them of playing politics with a bill that can’t pass the Senate and unveiled her party’s own bill.
Now, neither bill is moving. And the reality is that neither will pass the Senate anyway.
Despite the House-passed bill having bipartisan support, the National Rifle Association opposes its gun safety provision and has warned that a vote in favor of the bill will hurt lawmakers’ NRA rating. Senate Republicans take too much money from the NRA to be willing to mess up that cash flow over a vote on a VAWA bill.
Ernst’s bill, meanwhile, has its own problems. It strips out the gun safety provision. It strips out the added protections for LGBTQ and Native victims of violence. It doesn’t have many GOP co-sponsors, which signals that some of Ernst’s own colleagues don’t like it.
Most glaringly, Ernst only has three of the Senate’s eight Republican women supporting her bill: Sens. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and Deb Fischer (Neb.). The others may not be publicly criticizing the bill, but it’s clear why some don’t like it, if you read between the lines of what they have said: They want a bipartisan bill and they are listening to tribal advocacy groups outraged by the bill’s weakened protections for Native women, who face horrific levels of violence.
Ernst’s bill eliminates gains made in the 2013 VAWA reauthorization that gave tribes badly needed jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Native men who abuse Native women on tribal lands ― a common pattern to the kinds of domestic violence faced by Native women. Under Ernst’s bill, these non-Native abusers would no longer have to exhaust tribal court remedies before appealing their case to a federal court.
“Tribal courts prosecuting non-Indian defendants already provide the same ― if not more ― due process rights than state and federal courts,” Mary Kathryn Nagle, a partner and counsel at the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, said in a statement. “Placing paternalistic restrictions on tribal courts in the name of ‘due process’ is nothing more than a disguise for prejudice.”
Ernst’s bill also puts new restrictions on tribal courts that go beyond those imposed on federal and state courts, including audits by the U.S. attorney general, and it waives tribes’ sovereign immunity by creating a civil rights cause of action against the tribe for any alleged rights violations. In other words, domestic violence offenders could further antagonize their victims by claiming their own civil rights had been violated.
The National Congress of American Indians, the largest organization of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments, told Senate leaders in a Wednesday letter that it opposes Ernst’s bill because it would undermine the independence of tribal courts, destabilize protections offered to defendants under the Indian Civil Rights Act and impose unfair requirements on tribal courts.
“VAWA has always been a bipartisan bill, and has always included provisions aimed at empowering tribal governments to protect their communities,” reads NCAI’s letter, obtained by HuffPost. “We are disappointed that our commitment to protecting our most vulnerable citizens is being leveraged to try and persuade us to negotiate away our sovereignty and agree to unprecedented intrusions into our tribal justice systems.”
Here’s a copy of their letter:
Tribal opposition appears to be a dealbreaker for at least some GOP senators.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a prominent voice on Native issues, all but said she can’t support Ernst’s VAWA bill during a Senate hearing last month on her bills relating to missing and murdered indigenous women.
“I want to emphasize the importance of passing a bipartisan VAWA bill with a strong tribal provision which empowers our tribal governments and respects tribal sovereignty,” Murkowski said in passionate remarks, even though the bill wasn’t part of the hearing. “I know we’ve got a Democrat version, we’ve got a Republican version out there. There is nothing ― there is nothing partisan about making sure that Native women are protected.”
“We are dealing with vulnerable women here. We are dealing with those who really feel that they have no voice,” she added. “The last thing in the world they want to do is get caught up in our partisan politics.”
Annie Clark, a spokeswoman for Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), said the senator wants a VAWA bill that ensures perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual assault are held accountable, “regardless of whether their crimes were committed on tribal or non-tribal lands.”
“While it is unfortunate that efforts to craft a bipartisan VAWA reauthorization broke down, she is following the committee process closely and is hopeful that a compromise can be reached,” Clark said.
Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) isn’t co-sponsoring Ernst’s bill and hasn’t said anything about it. Her office has not responded to repeated requests for comment on how she feels about it and whether she plans to support it.
Arizona state Democratic Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, who is a member of the Navajo Nation, has been trying to get an answer out of McSally on Twitter.
“The bill is dangerous and disappointing & so is @senmcsallyaz’s silence on the proposal,” Peshlakai tweeted Tuesday.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) isn’t cosponsoring Ernst’s bill, either. Her office confirmed she has some problems with it.
“Senator Hyde-Smith supports reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and is supportive of the Republican bill in the Senate,” a spokesperson said. “She has not yet cosponsored the Senate measure because of concerns raised by some constituents—issues that she is working with Senator Ernst to address.”
For now, nothing is happening. And nobody has floated a way forward on VAWA, which will go without new funding until Congress passes something into law.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he had no news on what the next steps are on moving a VAWA bill of any kind.
An Ernst spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment about tribal opposition to her bill or about next steps for the bill.
This story has been updated with comments from Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s office.