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House votes to reauthorize Violence Against Women Act

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Washington — The House voted Wednesday to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the landmark 1994 law that strengthened domestic violence protections for women. 

The House approved the reauthorization by a vote of 244 to 172, with 29 Republicans joining all Democrats in voting for it. But the measure, which expired two years ago, may hit a roadblock in the evenly divided Senate.

VAWA enshrines legal protections for women who have experienced domestic and sexual violence. It was initially passed in 1994, championed by then-Senator Joe Biden, and was updated and reauthorized in 2000, 2005 and 2013. The bill expired at the end of 2018 due to a government shutdown and was briefly renewed by a resolution reopening the government, but expired again in February 2019. Mr. Biden made reauthorizing VAWA a key campaign promise before he was elected.

The White House Office of Management and Budget released a statement on Wednesday saying that "the administration strongly supports" reauthorizing VAWA.

"VAWA reauthorization is more urgent now than ever, especially when the pandemic and economic crisis have only further increased the risks of abuse and the barriers to safety for women in the United States," the statement said. "The administration is pleased that H.R. 1620 recognizes the need to provide protection and services to all victims of abuse and includes proposals to strengthen existing policies that were supported by both Democrats and Republicans last year. The Administration urges swift passage of this legislation."

The current bill would expand victims services and reauthorize grant programs for the criminal justice response to domestic and sexual violence. It also includes provisions that would expand housing options for survivors, and end immunity for non-Native perpetrators of sexual violence on tribal lands.

It would also close the so-called "boyfriend loophole" to prevent dating partners and stalkers convicted of domestic violence or abuse from purchasing and owning firearms. Previous versions of the bill already prevented spouses convicted of domestic violence or abuse from obtaining firearms.

The House passed a version of VAWA including this amendment in 2019, but it died in the Senate, which was then controlled by Republicans. Some GOP lawmakers objected to this portion of the bill, arguing it was too broad. Republicans also offered objections to provisions that would have expanded protections for LGBTQ and undocumented immigrant victims.

In 2019, the bill received support from 33 House Republicans, and the current version is cosponsored by Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick.

"Congress has historically reauthorized VAWA with broad, bipartisan agreement, and I look forward to working alongside my colleagues to ensure that VAWA continues to protect victims and survivors across the nation," Fitzpatrick said in a statement when the bill was introduced earlier this month.

However, it's unclear whether VAWA will be able to garner sufficient support in the Senate. Democrats hold a slim 50-seat majority, and most legislation requires 60 votes to advance in the Senate. Democrats will need support from at least 10 Republicans for the bill to move forward.

GOP Senator Joni Ernst, who introduced a different VAWA reauthorization bill in 2019 that lacked the support to be approved in the Senate, told reporters on Tuesday that she would again introduce her own version of VAWA. She added that fellow Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski was collaborating with her on portions related to protecting women on tribal lands.

"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, hopefully then the House," Ernst said.

Murkowski told reporters on Tuesday that VAWA had previously been "derailed" because of the provision closing the "boyfriend loophole."

"I think it's critically important that we advance VAWA," she said.

The House on Wednesday also approved a resolution eliminating the deadline for ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. The resolution passed largely along party lines with a vote of 222 to 204, and four Republicans joining all Democrats in support of the measure.

During the floor debate ahead of the vote, Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier, the bill's sponsor, quoted the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

"Antonin Scalia, the great jurist, said once, does the Constitution require discrimination based on sex? The answer is no. But if the question is, does the Constitution prohibit discrimination based on sex? The answer is also no. That should send a chilling feeling in each of us that in the Constitution of the United States, women are not protected," Speier said. "There can be no expiration date on equality."

An identical resolution has been introduced by Democratic Senator Ben Cardin and Murkowski in the Senate. The initial deadline was 1979, and was extended to 1982. No new states voted to ratify the amendment until 2017, when it was approved by Nevada. The amendment was ratified by Illinois in 2018 and Virginia in 2020.

Although the ERA reached the 38-state threshold needed to be adopted with Virginia's ratification, the Justice Department headed by former Attorney General William Barr issued an opinion in early 2020 saying that the ratifications by the three states did not count since they occurred after the deadline.

The House passed a bill in 2020 eliminating the deadline, but it quickly stalled in the Senate, as then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to bring it to the floor for a vote.

Murkowski told reporters on Tuesday that she did not believe the resolution currently had enough Republican votes to pass.

"On the Equal Rights Amendment, I wish that I could tell you that we had more Republican support for that at this point in time. We continue to work that," Murkowski said. 

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