Today, the Senate voted 78-22 to reauthorize the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. Again. Just like it did last April. And just like last year, everyone is now holding their breath and waiting to see just what is going to happen in the House.
Last year’s VAWA debate was one of those special moments that so perfectly captures why the American public loathes Washington. The Senate bill sought to expand protections for immigrants, Native Americans, and the LGBT community. This did not sit well with the House. Thus what was until this point a largely noncontroversial, feel-good vote was, first, turned into a political football—Your team hates women! Nuh-uh, your team’s the one politicizing this legislation!—and then abandoned by the side of the road like a squashed possum.
This latest version of the bill has been tweaked to address one of House Republicans’ previous concerns. (There will be no additional visas issued for battered immigrants.) Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, are arguably under even greater pressure to act, seeing as how a big reason that the GOP got its clock cleaned in November was because it is increasingly regarded as a party of old white guys standing on the porch bellowing at everyone else to get off their damn lawn. Desperate to combat this image, Republican leaders have launched a full-on charm offensive. Karl Rove and other big money men are banding together to try and stop Todd Akin types from scaring off voters. Sen. Marco Rubio, visions of 2016 dancing in his head, is trying to sweet-talk conservatives into embracing a kinder, gentler approach to immigration. At the RNC’s winter gathering a few weeks back, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal lectured fellow Republicans to “stop being the stupid party,” avoid damaging the brand with “offensive and bizarre comments,” and “talk like adults.” Even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor—a pol so sharp and intense he practically vibrates—was promoting his team’s softer side last week. At his much ballyhooed “Make Life Work” speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Cantor more or less embraced President Obama’s DREAM Act and put a cuddly spin on many of the GOP’s domestic policies.
A major rebranding like this will, of course, take more than a smattering of happy talk. It will require an all-hands-on-deck effort combining hard work, political savvy, and even a dollop of good luck. And you know what could really throw a monkey wrench into the whole effort? House Republicans once again blowing up VAWA—particularly after Dems have given ground on a key sticking point. Members’ opposition to any of the bill’s particulars will be drowned out (as happened last year) by Dems’ accusations that the GOP is fundamentally anti-woman.
Slogging toward compromise, even imperfect compromise, is fundamentally what Congress is paid to do, no matter how abhorrent many current members find the concept. The question now is what price House Republicans—and their leaders—are willing to pay for digging in their heels and demanding to have their own way.
The cost could be steep. Last time I checked, women made up more than half the electorate. A political party that so easily allows itself to get painted as hating on the ladies is a party on the road to extinction.