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House Renews Violence Against Women Act – VAWA… What Next?

Last month, the House of Representatives approved a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a law that protects and provides resources for victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence. The measure passed 244-172 with bipartisan support. This important law provides funding for critical programs meant to assist and protect victims of domestic violence and sexual assault was originally passed in 1994. In 2018 the law lapsed because Congress failed to reauthorize it due to partisan disputes over gun control and transgender issues.

Although the core legislation has broad support, certain provisions added to the bill at that time has proven to become an obstacle to its passage and reauthorization. In fact, in 2019 the House passed the VAWA measure but it then stalled and never brought up in the Senate.

The question remains whether this recent House victory, and a Democratic-led Senate means the Violence Against Women Act would finally pass and be re-enacted.

A number of Republican senators, including Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have gone on record stating that they are working to find a bipartisan compromise that can pass the Senate. However, there are still obstacles to achieving the level of support needed for successful reauthorization. This is due to some provisions that the current House-passed bill contains. The most contentious issue is the provision to expand the criminal threshold for barring an individual from buying a gun. This new provision includes misdemeanor domestic abuse or stalking convictions as valid justification to prevent the ability to purchase a gun. It also closes the so-called “boyfriend loophole” so the existing gun purchase/ownership prohibitions would extend not only to family members but will also include dating partners.

Chief opposition to this provision is the National Rifle Association and several GOP lawmakers. The NRA argues that while protecting women from violence is important, the addition of these gun ownership bans make the VAWA bill essentially a vehicle to subvert the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

The House-passed bill also strengthens existing protections for transgender women to access women’s shelters and serve in prisons that match their gender identity. VAWA advocates state that the gun and transgender provisions in the current bill are necessary to protect victims, and that these provisions are central to ensuring that people stay alive.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, is leading the effort to develop the Senate GOP’s counterproposal to the House bill. Ernst said, “What we’re hoping to show is that we have enough Republican support on our bill, and that we’re willing to work with Democrats on this, and hopefully, by combining forces we can come up with the 60 votes needed, and pass a good, modernized bill that will work for the Senate.” However, Ernst also indicated that the gun provisions would still be a problem in the Senate.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has stated that the VAWA would be brought to a vote in the Senate as soon as possible. Unfortunately, obstacles to passage still remain due to the issues that Republican Senators have with the gun and transgender provisions. One belief is that in effect, the lapse of the VAWA has little practical effect because Congress had continued to fund the related programs even without authorization. Therefore, failure to act now will not materially affect efforts to protect women against domestic abuse and sexual violence. But failure to reauthorize the VAWA leaves the funding of those programs unprotected should budget constraints require cuts. Additionally, the enhanced protections dealing with misdemeanor domestic abuse and stalking, closing the “boyfriend loophole, and more protections for transgender victims would not come to pass.

What comes next? We are eager to see what Senators Murkowski and Ernst can develop with regard to an acceptable counterproposal to the existing bill. What we can do in the meantime, is communicate the need to pass the VAWA as soon as possible to our Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla.