Fighting Words

Democrats and Republicans Reignite Fight Over VAWA

You’d think, writes Michelle Cottle, that Congress at least could agree on violence against women. Think again.

Much of the Beltway was still nursing an inaugural hangover when lawmakers gently but firmly waded back into the so-called war on women. Last Tuesday, Democrat Patrick Leahy and Republican Mike Crapo announced legislation aimed at reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. The following day, House Democratic leaders followed suit, hosting a press conference to tout an identical bill by Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore—and, while they were at it, smack their Republican colleagues for failing to re-up the bill last year. As Nancy Pelosi was happy to remind voters, “House Republicans refused to bring the Senate's bipartisan bill to the floor, leaving millions without a critical line of defense against domestic violence.”

Her challenge was the latest volley in a battle begun during the superheated election cycle. First passed in 1994—with then-senator Joe Biden riding point—VAWA was reauthorized twice without drama. It was considered a no-brainer vote, a way for members of both parties to join hands and express their opposition to, well, violence against women. But last April, when the Senate handed its reauthorization bill off to the House, Republican members balked at three new provisions: one expanded protections for gays and lesbians, another did the same for Native Americans, and a third covered undocumented immigrants. Citing various objections to the expansions, House conservatives promptly countered with a pared-down bill that stripped out all three. The resulting uproar was less a legislative debate than a public cage match, with Democratic congresswomen leading the charge. “As chilling and callous as anything I’ve ever seen come before this Congress in modern times,” declared Rep. Carolyn Maloney at a May presser, while Rep. Judy Chu declared the House version the “Open Season on Violence Against Women Act.” Lickety split, what was once a circle-up-and-sing-“Kumbaya” issue became an election-year football, with both teams shrieking that the opposition was trying to score partisan points on the backs of battered women.

Several months and a presidential election later, Republicans find themselves in arguably an even tougher spot on VAWA—and members of both teams know it. As such, Republican leaders would do well to get this particular issue off their plate ASAP, before Dems really start ramming it down their throats.

As the gaping election gender gap showed, the GOP has itself a bona fide women problem—and continued Republican opposition to VAWA is only going to exacerbate matters. “Fair or not, we have a vulnerability here,” acknowledges Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a deputy whip for the majority. “I think at the leadership level, they are concerned about it.”

They should be. While Republican leaders are for now mum on the issue (and politely declined requests for comment), House Dems do not seem inclined to turn down the temperature any time soon. If anything, Congresswoman Moore, VAWA’s House sponsor in both the 112th Congress and this one, seems all the more fired up by the Republicans’ rough showing in November. “Women are seeing the retrograde direction of this party,” she asserts. “And no amount of cleaning up their talking points is going to change their efforts to keep us barefoot and pregnant.” Running through a list of what she regards as GOP efforts to erode women’s rights—from reducing access to birth control to opposing equal pay--Moore concludes that it’s vital to warn women, “This is the tip of the iceberg. If they can’t even pass a law to protect women’s basic safety, are these the folks that you want to trust to take care of you other areas?”

Complicating matters for Republicans, last year House leaders could push back against the war-on-women accusations by noting that their version of the bill had been introduced by Rep. Sandy Adams, a former law-enforcement officer and herself a victim of domestic violence. As Adams put it, “I’m pretty sure I’m not at war against myself.” But Adams was defeated in her primary last summer, leaving the conference without an obvious point person on the issue.

This irony is not loss on Moore, who cites Adams’s defeat as proof that bad things will come to women who fail to stick up for other women by “taking one for the boys’ team.”

For his part, Cole has been among the Republicans working most aggressively to get VAWA reauthorized, largely because he supports the new provision enabling tribal authorities to prosecute non–American Indians who commit such crimes against women on reservations. Cole’s district includes tribal lands, and he can tick off a host of grisly statistics about the increased risks faced by women there. Late last year, he was among the few Republicans publicly urging his leadership to schedule a floor vote on the Senate version.

But even he seems a bit pessimistic about VAWA going anywhere fast. The budget debates still loom, he notes, and at this point it’s hard to get the members to focus on anything else.

Until they do, Moore and other VAWA champions have every intention of making life unpleasant for colleagues across the aisle. “We’re not going to lay down. We’re going to fight and let people know, and we’ve got big mouths. We’re going to yell and scream,” she vows. “We’ll start out making nice, appealing and asking and cajoling. But I think the intensity will have to build if they say ‘No.’”