Violence Against Women Act passed by House, sent to Obama for signature

By Rosalind S. Helderman
February 28, 2013

The Republican-held U.S. House signed off on a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that includes expanded protections for same-sex couples Thursday, ending a protracted political fight over the measure and sending the bill to President Obama to sign into law.

Obama said he will sign the bill as soon as he gets it. “Renewing this bill is an important step towards making sure no one in America is forced to live in fear,” he said in a statement.

The measure, which was already approved by the Senate, passed the House on a 286 to 138 vote, as 199 Democrats joined 87 Republicans to push the bill over opposition from a bloc of 138 conservatives, who opposed the bill for a number of reasons, including the new protections for gays and lesbians.

More Republicans voted against the bill than supported it — the third time since December that House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has allowed legislation to move off the floor that did not have the support of a majority of his divided members.

In this case, the outcome stemmed from a broad desire from GOP leaders to get past the Violence Against Women Act issue. It was an acknowledgment that their continued opposition to a measure that had passed with broad bipartisan support in the Senate and has strong appeal with women voters was damaging the party’s image.

Hailed as landmark legislation when it was first passed in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act authorizes funding for programs across the country that help in the prosecution of sexual assault and domestic abuse, and assists victims of the crimes.

Those include battered women’s shelters, victims advocates, rape-prevention education and other programs.

The bill will authorize up to $660 million be spent each year for the next five years for such programs — a drop of 17 percent from the last time the act was reauthorized in 2005.

Advocates said the reduction in funding level — which Congress generally does not fully appropriate anyhow — was disappointing but inevitable given shrinking federal budgets.

They had pushed hard for approval of the measure to reinforce the nation’s commitment to ending domestic and sexual violence. They had also supported new provisions in the legislation that expanded its reach, including new provisions barring discrimination against gays and lesbians in programs funded by the bill.

The measure also expands the authority of tribal courts to prosecute nonnative American men who are accused of crimes on Indian reservations, an expansion of the law’s reach intended to help address particularly pernicious problems of abuse on reservations.

That provision proved to be one of the most contentious between the parties. Many House Republicans believed the expanded authority for tribal courts to be unconstitutional and partly for that reason refused to adopt the Senate’s version of the bill last year.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) then helped craft a GOP version of the measure, which was silent on same-sex couples and attempted a compromise on the issue of Indian reservations.

“Our goal in strength in the Violence Against Women Act is simple: We want to help all women who are faced with violent, abusive or dangerous situations,” he said Thursday, encouraging the House to embrace his version of the bill.

But Cantor’s proposal was defeated on a 166 to 257 vote Thursday, tumbling under the combined opposition of unified Democrats and a bloc of Republicans, some of whom were allies of Native Americans who believed it did not adequately acknowledge sovereignty of Indian tribes.

Other Republicans opposed the Violence Against Women Act in its entirety, believing the measure improperly entangles the federal government in programs better left to state and local governments.

Democrats let out a cheer as the GOP bill fell — and again when the Senate bill was approved.

Knowing Cantor’s version was likely to fall, House leaders had decided to allow the House to proceed to vote on the version adopted by the Senate, despite strong opposition from some of their members, a significant shift from last year.

It came after a November election in which Republicans lost ground with female voters and some key GOP candidates made embarrassing misstatements on the sensitive issue of rape.

After the Senate passed the bill on a strongly bipartisan 78 to 22 vote earlier this month, a group of 18 House Republicans wrote a letter to their leaders urging a vote on the Senate bill instead of another Republican bill. Fifty-nine Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the GOP version of the measure, a key break that paved the way for the vote on the Senate bill.

Republicans who supported the Senate bill included former vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.). Cantor, who had led the GOP’s effort on the issue, voted against it.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the episode was a sign House Republican leaders need Democrats to get bills approved.

“If we have to supply the votes, we should be helping to write the bills,” she said at a news conference surrounded by female Democrats.

Democrats who had pressed the GOP House for months, using the expiration of the act in 2011 as a potent political weapon to charge that their opponents have a weak commitment to issues that affect women, declared victory.

“There is absolutely no reason that it should have taken this long for the House leadership to come around on a bill that had overwhelming bipartisan support,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a leading advocate for the bill. “But passage today is a validation of what we’ve been saying since this bill expired in 2011 — VAWA has never been, and should never be, a partisan bill.”

Murray applauded “moderate Republican voices in the House who stood up to their leadership to demand a vote on the Senate bill.”

Source” WP