House Renews Landmark Domestic Violence Bill, but Obstacles Wait in Senate

Tray Ling

The House moved on Wednesday to renew the Violence Against Women Act, adding firearm restrictions for convicted domestic abusers and other new provisions to a landmark law that has helped combat domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking but expired in 2019. President Biden, who wrote the law into existence as […]

The House moved on Wednesday to renew the Violence Against Women Act, adding firearm restrictions for convicted domestic abusers and other new provisions to a landmark law that has helped combat domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking but expired in 2019.

President Biden, who wrote the law into existence as a senator in 1994, has made strengthening it one of his top domestic priorities during his time in office, and Wednesday’s vote was the first significant step toward putting it back into effect after lapsing under President Donald J. Trump. The law’s renewal has taken on added urgency amid alarming increases in domestic violence during the coronavirus pandemic.

The House’s 244-to-172 vote was bipartisan, with 29 Republicans joining united Democrats to approve the bill. But substantial conservative opposition to a measure that has enjoyed broad backing from both parties in the past foreshadowed a more difficult path ahead in the Senate, where Democrats control just 50 of the 60 votes necessary for passage.

In a statement after the vote, Mr. Biden urged the Senate to “bring a strong bipartisan coalition together” to send him a bill to sign into law as soon as possible.

“Growing evidence shows that Covid-19 has only exacerbated the threat of intimate partner violence, creating a pandemic within a pandemic for countless women at risk for abuse,” he said. “This should not be a Democratic or Republican issue — it’s about standing up against the abuse of power and preventing violence.”

Much of the House’s proposed update to the Violence Against Women Act, commonly known as VAWA, is noncontroversial. It would build on a patchwork of programs like violence prevention and housing assistance for abuse victims, reaffirm legal protections for victims and their families, and more aggressively target resources to minority communities.

In an effort to expand the law’s reach, however, Democrats have also included provisions tightening access to firearms by people convicted of a violent crime or subject to a court order, and expanding protections for gay, bisexual and transgender people. In an attempt to cut into high rates of domestic violence against Native American women, their bill would grant tribal courts new authority to prosecute non-Indians for sex trafficking, sexual violence and stalking.

“This bill opens the door of the armor of the federal government and its protection of women who continue to lose their life and men,” said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas and one of its principal authors. “Yes, it is a culturally sensitive initiative that protects immigrant women, it protects Native Americans, it protects poor women.”

But what Democrats characterized as equitable expansions of the law meant to meet the needs of a changing nation have prompted intense backlash among conservative Republicans, who have eagerly jumped into ideological battles with Democrats again and again in recent weeks.

In sometimes fiery debate on the House floor on Wednesday, several conservatives accused the majority of using a law meant to protect women as a Trojan horse for a “far-left political agenda” on gun control and gay and transgender rights while holding hostage a clean reauthorization of the bill.

“The most egregious provisions of this bill push leftist gender ideology at the expense of important protections for women’s privacy and safety,” said Representative Debbie Lesko, Republican of Arizona, who recounted her own experience with domestic violence. “If this bill is enacted, these shelters under penalty of federal law would be required to take in men and shelter them with women, putting vulnerable women at risk.”

Ms. Lesko appeared to be referring to provisions barring groups that receive funds under VAWA from discriminating based on gender identity that were enshrined in law in 2013 and merely reiterated in the new bill. Its proponents say they have caused no widespread safety or privacy issues. One new aspect of the bill would require the Bureau of Prisons to consider the safety of transgender prisoners when giving housing assignments.

Republicans were just as angry over the proposed closing of the so-called boyfriend loophole. While existing federal law forbids people convicted of domestic violence against a current or former spouse to buy or own a firearm, the new legislation would extend the prohibition to those convicted of abusing, assaulting or stalking a dating partner, or to those under a court restraining order.

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, pushed unsuccessfully for amendments that would allow the government to fund firearm training and self-defense classes for women.

“If you want to protect women, make sure women are gun owners and know how to defend themselves,” she said. “That’s the greatest defense for women.”

Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, offered an alternative proposal on Wednesday that would have reauthorized the law without changes for a single year to allow time for more bipartisan negotiation. It failed 177 to 249.

Democrats and some Republicans did adopt an amendment by Representatives Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, and John Katko, Republican of New York, that appends what would be the first federal law to specifically address “revenge porn.” Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have put their own such laws in place in recent years, but advocates of a federal statute say they are inconsistent.

The disagreements were many of the same ones that led the law to expire two years ago. House Democrats first passed a similar version of the bill to the one adopted on Wednesday in 2019 with modest support from across the aisle, but the Republican-controlled Senate declined to take it up for a vote amid an intense lobbying campaign by the N.R.A. to oppose the gun provisions.

This time Democrats control the upper chamber and have vowed to hold a vote. Still, they will need at least 10 Republicans to join them to send a bill to Mr. Biden and will have to placate the minority party over many of the contentious new measures in the weeks ahead.

Senate Republicans, led by Joni Ernst of Iowa, are preparing their own alternative to try to force compromises. Ms. Ernst, who has spoken about her own experience of sexual assault, told reporters this week that her colleagues objected chiefly to the gun provisions included in the House-passed measure, but she suggested their bill would eliminate other unwanted liberal proposals, too.

Mr. Biden, who has called VAWA his “proudest legislative accomplishment,” enthusiastically backed the House bill and has not indicated what, if any, changes he would embrace. He won the presidency last fall in part based on the commanding support of women.

The law was considered a watershed when it was written in the early 1990s. It addressed several issues that federal lawmakers had not tackled in a single piece of legislation, including keeping confidential the addresses of abused people and recognizing orders of protection across jurisdictions. Before the law was enacted, a state court order of protection in one state could not be enforced in another state.

Though the law authorizing VAWA programs expired, Congress has continued to fund many of them in the meantime.

Mr. Biden has already tried to make good on campaign promises to strengthen efforts to prevent domestic violence. His $1.9 trillion stimulus bill allocated $49 million for groups that aid survivors of domestic abuse, as well as housing assistance for people fleeing abuse, sexual violence and human trafficking.

Katie Benner and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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