Violence Against Women Act Debate Gets Political

Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:23pm

The Violence Against Women Act: It’s a bill whose name alone makes it difficult to oppose. And in the past, Republicans and Democrats came together to pass and reauthorize the bill with little controversy.

In 2005, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) posed for photos as then-President George W. Bush signed the last reauthorization measure into law. The bill had passed the House by a vote of 415-4 and the Senate by unanimous consent.

In contrast, the House television studios Wednesday were a veritable shooting gallery as Democratic lawmakers unloaded on Republicans over differences on the reauthorization bill.

Against the backdrop of the attacks, several House Republicans defected on Wednesday’s 222-205 vote, and the bill faces an uncertain future.

At the center of the rhetorical war was a meta-debate about which party turned the previously feel-good bill into a knock-down, drag-out fight.

“Given that the Senate Democratic leadership has announced the goal of exploiting this issue for partisan gain, not extending the Violence Against Women Act, it’s difficult to see what the next step is,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

But it was mostly Democrats on the attack in a series of press conferences in which they lambasted the House bill.

“I am deeply disappointed that Republicans are trying to politicize this issue,” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said.

The House GOP’s version of the bill is “as chilling and as callous as anything I have seen come before this Congress in modern times,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said.

“Let’s call this bill what it really is: the ‘open season on violence against women act,’” Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said.

The attacks were such that Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) felt compelled to declare her opposition to domestic abuse.

“How could they possibly accuse us of not being concerned about violence against women?” Foxx asked. “All Republicans are against violence,” she said, adding that she personally prefers to avoid films with any depictions of violence.

Democrats pointed to three key differences between the House bill and a version passed by the Senate in April.

The Senate bill included provisions offering explicit protection for lesbian, gay and transgender people as well as giving legal authority to American Indian tribes to prosecute domestic violence committed by non-American Indians.

The House bill, meanwhile, put new restrictions on illegal immigrants who report domestic abuse, which Republicans said are designed to prevent immigration fraud but Democrats warn could result in victims failing to report abuse to police.

Standing alongside the Democrats in their attack of the Republican bill were advocacy groups who said the changes in the Senate bill were important reforms to stop an “epidemic” of domestic violence.

The groups spurned Republican overtures and a managers amendment designed to ameliorate their concerns, deciding on a conference call Tuesday to lobby vigorously against the bill.

The Republican sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Sandy Adams (Fla.), was a victim of domestic violence herself and a former deputy sheriff. But at several press conferences, Democrats referred to the “Adams-Cantor” bill, tagging the proposal with the name of Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

Asked why she was referring to the bill that way, Rep. Gwen Moore (Wis.), the leading Democratic messenger on the bill who was herself a victim of domestic violence, said it was “introduced that way.” According to Cantor’s office, that is not the case, and Republicans suspect the moniker was a means of distracting from Adams’ personal story.

Also bolstering the Democrats’ case was the 68-31 bipartisan vote in the Senate.

Democrats on Wednesday tirelessly reminded of the “overwhelmingly” bipartisan vote in which “every woman Republican Senator” voted for the bill.

In the House, Republicans watched the fierce attacks of their bill with a sense of disbelief, thinking the tone of the attacks was at odds with the size of the two parties’ policy differences.

They argued that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had arranged a political ambush with eyes on November’s elections, where female voters will play a key role in deciding the next president.

“If you want to use this bill to engage in social engineering or to cater to certain constituencies because you have the general election in November — that’s what disappoints me about it,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said Tuesday evening.

Gowdy, a former assistant U.S. attorney, had watched incredulously during a Rules Committee markup in which Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) issued a blistering assault on the House bill. “I don’t recognize it,” Gowdy said, regarding the bill Lofgren was describing.

In March, a story in Politico reported that Schumer was eyeing the bill as a “political weapon” and “wedge issue.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) placed the entire story in the Congressional Record the next day, and Republicans have since cited it as evidence that Democrats are cynically using the issue for political gain.

But the story included only one relatively innocuous quote, and Democrats have rejected the reporting as off base.

“Republicans are making the contrast for us,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), arguing that highlighting policy contrasts isn’t politicizing the issue.

Schumer spokesman Brian Fallon pointed to a letter urging passage of the Senate bill that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) had signed.

“When even Republicans like Sen. Murkowski are calling on the Speaker to just pass the Senate bill, you know the House Republicans have taken the political games on this issue too far,” Fallon said.