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Violence Against Women Act clears House

Measure includes firearms restrictions and expansion of transgender rights

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick was the lone Republican co-sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act. He was one of 33 Republicans to support the measure. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick was the lone Republican co-sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act. He was one of 33 Republicans to support the measure. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House voted Thursday to renew the lapsed Violence Against Women Act, but the proposal stoked contention over provisions restricting gun rights and expanding rights for transgender individuals.

Lawmakers voted 263-158 to pass the measure, which highlighted divisions within the Republican caucus. While the bill does have one Republican co-sponsor, Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick, other House Republicans objected to new provisions included in the VAWA reauthorization measure. In all, 33 Republicans voted for the measure, and one, Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, voted present.

The most contentious provision would lower the criminal threshold to bar someone from buying a gun to include misdemeanor convictions of domestic abuse of stalking. The law currently applies to felony convictions.

“It is not the time to hold the safety of women as a bargaining chip against infringements on religious liberty or weakening of the Second Amendment,” said Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va. on the floor Wednesday.

The bill would also close the so-called “boyfriend loophole” to expand gun prohibitions to include dating partners convicted of abuse or stalking charges.

“Why would you not close a simple loophole that says if someone has been convicted — convicted, not accused! — convicted of domestic violence, that they not have access to a gun,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich. She has shared her experiences of growing up with an abusive father who owned a gun.

“I know that fear, I know that terror — and I just want to save another family from that terror,” Rep. Dingell said.

The firearms provisions led the National Rifle Association to weigh in on the measure and “score” how lawmakers voted on the bill, which will impact NRA ratings that are often touted during elections.

“Do not let the NRA bully you,” Dingell told her House colleagues Thursday ahead of the vote on VAWA, referencing her late husband. “John Dingell was on the NRA board — hell — he helped start it,” she said.

House Republicans shouted Dingell down on the floor as her time expired.

Fitzpatrick, despite his colleagues and the NRA’s opposition to the measure, was not swayed.

“From domestic violence and sexual assault to cyberstalking, we must do more to prevent violence and, when it does happen, to support victims and bring perpetrators to justice,” the former FBI agent said.

The bill included text from a separate measure he previously introduced that would increase penalties for cyberstalking, specifically of children. Fitzpatrick’s yea vote was not alone on the Republican side of the aisle.

Oklahoma’s Tom Cole also voted in favor of the measure, in part due to provisions focused on Native American tribal justice jurisdiction. Four out of five Native American women experience violence in their lives, according to a report by the National Congress of American Indians.

Lawmakers adopted two amendments from freshman Democrat Deb Haaland of New Mexico related to Native American populations, including one to facilitate information sharing of criminal database information between federal, state and tribal authorities. Haaland made history as the first Native American woman elected to the House, and she teamed up with Republicans Don Young of Alaska and Paul Cook of California to propose the criminal database change.

Transgender rights issues also emerged during debate over VAWA in committee and in the House chamber this week.

In committee, Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., an abuse survivor herself, tried to strip provisions in the measure that would allow transgender women to serve in prisons that align with their gender identity and access womens’ shelters.

Lesko and other Republicans want those access and sentencing guidelines to continue to correspond with biological sex assigned at birth. Lesko voted against the final bill Thursday.

Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., said he opposed the gun provisions specifically, but said he wanted to “be part of the effort to get this to the Senate and get it back and get this over with once and for all.”

He noted he was not opposed to the transgender rights proposals included on the bill.

“As I’ve voted on the LGBT issues consistently, and did last week, one of the five of us on our side, I’m very comfortable with those provisions. Discrimination is discrimination. So I’m not concerned about it. I know other members are,” he said.

Reed was among the five Republicans to buck the party line last week and vote in favor of a non-binding resolution opposing the president’s ban on transgender service members in the military.

Fortenberry was the only lawmaker to vote ‘present’ and told Roll Call that he would have preferred more bipartisan cooperation on the measure. 

“I voted present because I reject the premise that Congressional dynamics prevented us from partnering on such an essential issue as The Violence Against Women Act. I refused to support a bad no vote; I refused to support a bad yes vote,” Fortenberry said in a statement. 

The VAWA proposal includes additional expansions, including making it a federal crime for a federal law enforcement officer to have sex while in the course of their official duties, regardless of whether it is consensual or not. Lawmakers adopted an amendment that would expand the National Domestic Violence Hotline to include texting features.

Rep. Karen Bass, the bill’s primary sponsor, said changes were needed to the 2013 reauthorization of the law and that a simple reauthorization without expansion wasn’t the answer.

“Movements like #MeToo across this country demand Congress’ attention to better deal with the gaping holes left unfilled in current law around the issues of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, harassment, and stalking,” she said.

The 1994 law to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence lapsed during the partial government shutdown last year, but was reinstated in the January short-term fiscal 2019 spending deal.

An extension was not included in the deal that provided for spending through the end of fiscal 2019. While the law is expired, Congress will continue to fund the bill’s programs through the annual appropriations process. According to a Congressional Budget Office report released tis week, the updated VAWA authorized approximately $1 billion annually over a renewal period through 2024.

The Senate will is not expected to take up the House-passed VAWA measure. Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., are working on a Senate proposal.

“We are still working on the text,” Ernst said in a brief interview. She said that the Senate version will probably diverge from the House on the gun provisions.

Reed said he’d like to see a Senate VAWA without the gun issues come to the House floor.

“I dare [Speaker Nancy Pelosi] not to put up the Violence Against Women Act when it comes out of the Senate without this gun issue. Then it will show the real colors,” he said Wednesday.

Simone Pathe contributed to this report.