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Kavanaugh Controversy and Violence Against Women Act Collide on Capitol Hill

Not the first time a Supreme Court fight and VAWA have been linked

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., hold a press conference with Holton-Arms alumnae in support of Christine Blasey Ford in the Hart Senate Office Building on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., hold a press conference with Holton-Arms alumnae in support of Christine Blasey Ford in the Hart Senate Office Building on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh upended his confirmation process and brought sexual misconduct back into the spotlight on Capitol Hill. While the Senate Judiciary Committee digs into what happened more than 30 years ago, other lawmakers are working to extend and expand protections for victims under the Violence Against Women Act.

The competing claims from Ford and Kavanaugh have divided both the Senate and the country, with Ford accusing Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a party when they were teenagers, and Kavanaugh issuing blanket denials and saying he welcomes the chance to “clear my name.” 

On Sunday, more allegations of sexual misdeeds from Kavanaugh’s past emerged, causing more turbulence for Republican efforts to make him a justice. 

There is also a split on how and when to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which is set to expire at the end of September. The House is expected to vote this week on a stopgap spending bill that includes an extension through Dec. 7 of the landmark anti-violence law, but many lawmakers would prefer a full reauthorization.

“Republicans’ decision to include only a short-term VAWA reauthorization in the must-pass minibus spending bill is nothing short of an abdication of our responsibilities to women in our country,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote in a letter to Speaker Paul D. Ryan on Sept. 17.

In the Senate, Iowa Republican Joni Ernst called for a full debate in“regular order” on a reauthorization.

“I believe we can strengthen this act in several ways by addressing changing circumstances since its last reauthorization five years ago by tailoring its language to better fit the needs of our communities. There are provisions we need to change and to work on, but we are not afforded that opportunity,” Ernst said on the Senate floor following passage of the short-term extension in that chamber.

Flashback: Pelosi Campaigns in New Mexico, Speaking About Violence Against Women Bill

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What’s old is new again

If the connection between the two topics sounds familiar, there is a reason for that.

Congress passed the original VAWA in 1994, sponsored by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter. The legislation came together in the aftermath of the 1991 Anita Hill hearings — where Hill alleged she faced sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas — and the subsequent “Year of the Woman,” when a record four women were elected to the Senate and 24 to the House in 1992.

The future of VAWA is uncertain at a time when, once again, more women than ever are running for public office and another woman may publicly testify about a high court nominee’s alleged misconduct.

Despite Republicans and Democrats both saying that prevention of violence against women and support for survivors is not a partisan issue, a stark party-line divide has emerged since the allegations against Kavanaugh became public.

Democrats have pushed for an FBI investigation before Ford testifies and demonstrators have flocked to Capitol Hill to show their belief in Ford’s side of the story. Republicans, the White House and the Justice Department have pushed back on opening a federal investigation of the matter.

President Donald Trump cast his own doubt on Ford’s claims Friday, suggesting that if she had been assaulted, then charges would’ve been filed against Kavanaugh — a claim that discounts the fact that the vast majority of sexual assault victims do not report the incidents.

“I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents,” the president tweeted. “I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!”

It is not clear that efforts on both sides of the aisle to move toward a VAWA solution will prevent the kind of partisan posturing that soured the 2013 reauthorization, when conservatives in the House GOP caucus opposed the bill after leadership brought the Senate version to the floor without committee consideration.

“The VAWA extension through December 7th is a good step as we continue to work for a long term solution,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington said in a statement. The highest-ranking GOP woman in Congress, McMorris Rodgers has also called on Trump to fill the vacant director position of the Justice Department’s Office on Violence against Women.

House Democrats introduced a VAWA reauthorization proposal in July, sponsored by Texas’s Sheila Jackson Lee, that includes updates to the law such as provisions to help victims of domestic violence and stalking stay in stable housing situations and to bar evictions based on the actions of an abuser.

The update, backed by 163 Democrats and no Republicans, also includes a gun-related provision that could prove to be a poison pill for any action in the GOP-led House. The Democratic proposal would expand firearms laws to ensure that partners under protective orders or convicted of dating violence or stalking are prohibited from having a gun. Some states already have so-called red flag laws in place, with the aim of preventing escalation of violence.

Earlier this month, 46 House Republicans called on Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to bring a VAWA reauthorization to the floor before its expiration. New York GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik introduced a bill that would extend the current law for six months and give lawmakers more time to negotiate potential changes. 

Congress’ own protocols

One set of negotiations that is likely to slip past the midterms are talks between House and Senate staff on competing bills to overhaul the Congressional Accountability Act, which set up and oversees the process for how sexual harassment complaints are made and handled on Capitol Hill. 

Both chambers passed bills that would hold lawmakers personally liable for paying settlements, an issue that arose when the #MeToo movement came to Capitol Hill and taxpayer-funded settlements paid to victims of harassment spurred outrage. A wave of resignations and retirements swept through as former Hill staffers came forward to talk about what they endured.

There are still significant sticking points in reconciling the two bills, including the scope of lawmaker liability for harassment and discrimination claims. So with limited time left in the legislative calendar before the November elections, the likelihood that Congress will take action to clean up sexual misconduct on Capitol Hill is dwindling. 

Todd Ruger and John T. Bennett contributed to this report. 

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