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House eyes Violence Against Women Act reauthorization and expansion

VAWA extension was not included in last month’s spending package

California Rep. Katie Porter spoke of her experiences with law enforcement as a survivor of domestic abuse during an event to mark the introduction of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
California Rep. Katie Porter spoke of her experiences with law enforcement as a survivor of domestic abuse during an event to mark the introduction of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Violence Against Women Act is back on the House agenda, with Democrats and at least one Republican leading a fresh effort to reauthorize and expand the domestic violence law.

A bill introduced Thursday would include updates to the landmark legislation, which was first enacted in 1994. The proposal is sponsored by California Democrat Karen Bass and Pennsylvania Republican Brian Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent.

The protections and programs under VAWA lapsed during the monthlong partial government shutdown, but were reinstated in January’s short-term deal to end the spending impasse. An extension was not included in the longer deal struck last month that runs through the end of the fiscal year.

At an event celebrating the bill’s introduction, freshman Rep. Katie Porter gave emotional testimony about surviving domestic violence, as she described two vastly different experiences she had with law enforcement.

“The first time I called for help, the officer who arrived told me that if I called for protection again, my children would be taken away from me,” the California Democrat said, pausing to breathe as tears streamed down her face.

Porter said she feared that outcome and being blamed for the dangerous situation she was in. She waited weeks before calling the police again for help.

“And when I did, it was a huge difference. The officer who arrived told me I was brave. He told me I could survive. He told me he would help me and protect my kids and husband and help us all get the help that we needed,” she said.

Porter emphasized that training local police and first responders with how to appropriately interact with domestic violence victims is essential, noting that provisions in the bill authorize funding for such programs.

“That is what this legislation is about. It’s about making sure when men and women and children around this country call for help, those that arrive on the scene know what to do and are willing to do it,” she said.

Porter apologized for her tears, and was met with hugs and applause from her colleagues.

This was not the first time she has spoken publicly about her experience. Her divorce and the protective order she obtained against her husband came to light during a bruising Democratic primary last year.

Also watch: Violence Against Women Act witness — Title IX is moot ‘because men can be women’

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‘Today’s challenges’

Porter’s experience is far from unique. One in three American women are physically abused by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The latest proposal would include updates to law enforcement grants and health care provisions.

“We must revise and strengthen VAWA so that it meets today’s challenges,” Bass said Thursday morning at a hearing of the House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee, which she chairs. 

Fitzpatrick, the lone Republican at the bill introduction event, lauded the measure’s provisions on the fast-changing realm of digital abuse. He said the measure would increase penalties for cyber stalking and require federal law enforcement to regularly evaluate and update practices to combat online harassment and cyber bullying.

“We must also engage men in preventing violence,” he said.

Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell said bringing together different parts of the legal, mental health and domestic violence systems can make it easier for survivors to get help. The measure also includes gun control provisions focused on known abusers.

“People don’t understand how easy it is for perpetrators of dating violence — and those convicted — to still get a gun. People with a history of domestic violence shouldn’t have access to guns,” Dingell said.

She said closing loopholes that allow stalkers to have access to firearms would save lives, citing statistics that showed 76 percent of women murdered by a current or former intimate partner experienced stalking in the last year of their life.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham said Wednesday that his panel will hold a hearing on March 26 on “red flag” laws, which give authorities increased ability to confiscate guns from individuals deemed dangerous by a court. Some states already have such laws in place, with the aim of preventing escalation of violence. 

Some resistance

Congress first passed the landmark domestic violence law in 1994 and most recently reauthorized it in 2013, but not without a fight. In 2013, conservatives in the House Republican Caucus opposed the bill after leadership brought the Senate version to the floor without committee consideration in the House.

Pelosi said resistance to the bill was what kept it from getting reauthorized.

“We hope to receive more bipartisan support as the bill moves forward,” the California Democrat said. “The bill preserves the vital progress that was made in the 2013 reauthorize to protect the LGTBQ community, Native American community and immigrant women. That was part of the fight. We couldn’t get the bill to the floor because there was resistance to protect immigrant, LGTBQ and Native women.”

Pelosi said Democrats are taking the same approach as they did in 2013 when the Senate and House did their own bills and “that brought us success.”

At the House Judiciary subcommittee hearing earlier in the day, ranking member John Ratcliffe accused Democrats of using VAWA as a political bargaining chip when an extension through the end of the fiscal year was not included in the spending deal to end the partial government shutdown.

“It is my hope that this committee and this Congress can agree on a bipartisan, noncontroversial reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act,” the Texas Republican said. “It is my fear that this committee’s majority will instead push forward with a partisan bill that is intended to score political points.”

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler laid out a timeline for chamber action on the reauthorization measure at a press conference Thursday.

“In the coming weeks, the Judiciary Committee will mark up VAWA 2019. We had a hearing on it today. We’ll be marking up probably next week and we will debate it on the floor of the House,” the New York Democrat said..