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Senators float new bipartisan Violence Against Women Act outline

Measure would expand list of misdemeanor crimes that could result in a firearm ban

From left, Sens. Richard J. Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, Joni Ernst and Lisa Murkowski announced Thursday a bipartisan framework to update and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.
From left, Sens. Richard J. Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, Joni Ernst and Lisa Murkowski announced Thursday a bipartisan framework to update and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. (File photos by Caroline Brehman and Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A bipartisan group of senators on Thursday announced an agreement on a framework to update and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, the closest the law has come to reauthorization since it lapsed in 2019.

“Every day that goes by without action puts lives at risk, and we will work tirelessly to ensure that this framework becomes law as soon as possible,” the four lawmakers — Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska — said in a joint statement

The group said it plans to introduce the bill next month and the measure would include provisions to expand existing law to bar domestic abusers from owning firearms — a sticking point in the talks for more than a year.

“Our bipartisan agreement enhances and expands services for survivors of domestic violence, including survivors in rural communities, LGBT survivors, survivors with disabilities, and survivors who experience abuse later in life,” Feinstein said in a floor speech Thursday.

The House passed a version of the reauthorization in March in a 244-172 vote that netted the support of 29 Republicans.

The Senate framework announced Thursday reflects the most bipartisan effort in the chamber since the law’s authorization lapsed two years ago.

The four senators said their upcoming bill would include language to expand programs in rural areas and to LGBT survivors, as well as support to train law enforcement in handling trauma. The measure would also expand Native American tribal jurisdiction over crimes committed by nontribal members, building on a program started by the last reauthorization in 2013.

Senators also negotiated a version of the firearms provisions — a sticking point that stalled previous talks — that expanded the list of misdemeanor crimes that could result in a firearm ban. The new bill would apply the ban only to convictions after the law’s passage, the lawmakers said. 

Ernst took on the role of lead negotiator for Republicans in the bipartisan talks after taking a seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2019. In a floor speech Thursday, she said she was backing provisions that would expand existing provisions for domestic abusers to be barred from owning a gun if their victim was their spouse. The new provision would extend that firearm ban to domestic abusers who are not married to their victim.

“Due process is completely intact, fully present, and I will not be compromised on that, I can promise you that,” Ernst said.

The National Rifle Association opposed the House version of the reauthorization because Democrats expanded the firearm ban in the legislation in 2019. The group said the law should not expand  current limited exemptions that take gun rights from people convicted of misdemeanors rather than felonies.

Murkowski, vice chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, has made increasing resources for tribal governments a priority in a new authorization. Murkowski’s home state of Alaska has a significant tribal population, which she said is experiencing a domestic violence crisis.

“To fully address the root causes of this crisis,  the high rates of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking, the violent crime in native communities, we have an awful lot more to do,” Murkowski said on the Senate floor Thursday.

The 2013 reauthorization allowed tribes to prosecute nontribal members for domestic violence but not other crimes, such as assault on children or on law enforcement officers.

The Biden administration has backed a reauthorized Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, calling for swift Senate passage after the House passed its bill. At a Senate Judiciary hearing in October, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said federal and local prosecutors needed more tools to address gender-based violence.

“We must continue to equip police and prosecutors with the knowledge, skills and resources needed to provide survivor-centered and trauma-informed responses to victims who seek help from the criminal justice system,” Monaco said.

The House bill would reauthorize VAWA for another five years and expand grant programs for criminal justice response and support for survivors. The bill also would expand housing options for survivors and expand tribal jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of domestic violence on tribal lands.

First passed in 1994, VAWA enshrines legal protections for victims of domestic and sexual violence. The original bill was championed by then-Sen. Joe Biden and was reauthorized and updated in 2000, 2005 and 2013.

The current legislation is co-sponsored by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa. A reauthorization attempt last Congress fell apart after a breakdown in the bipartisan Senate talks resulted in dueling bills that did not pass the filibuster threshold.

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