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Senate needs to come together to reauthorize Violence Against Women Act

By Sarah Chamberlain

This column was updated March 18 after the House voted to reauthorize this bill by a 244-to-172 margin, with 29 Republicans supporting it.

For the past few years, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAMA) has been stuck in Congress. That’s unacceptable. Legislation that provided essential rights and protections for victims of abuse should never have been allowed to expire in the first place and the situation has been exacerbated over the past 12 months thanks to the multiple stressors brought on by the pandemic have contributed to a sharp increase in domestic violence.

This is legislation that Republicans need to rally behind and pass quickly in a bipartisan manner in both chambers of Congress. The House reintroduced the bill on March 8 and H.R. 1620 passed Wednesday, with 21 of RMSP’s members supporting it, including the only two Republican co-sponsors, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania (pictured below) and Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas. It’s legislation that has the strong support of President Biden, who co-sponsored the original bill back in 1994 as a Senator.

But the Senate, where 60 votes will be needed, may be another story.

The Violence Against Women’s Act was seminal legislation, providing essential rights and protections for victims of abuse. Among other things, it made it easier for women to obtain restraining orders and extricate themselves from abusive relationships. It provided funds for states and communities to offer temporary housing and support for victims. It established new sentencing guidelines for rape and sexual battery to counteract the confounding habit of male judges to let convicted offenders off with little or no prison time. It took away registered guns for minimum periods from those convicted of abuse.

The new House bill builds upon previous versions by providing grants and support to various groups that work on issues related to sexual assault and domestic violence and prevention.

The legislation was first passed with much fanfare. But like many other bills that involve budgetary outlays, it needs to be regularly re-authorized by Congress to be included in each year’s annual budget. Congress has responded in the past by reauthorizing the bill in 2000, 2005, and finally in 2013 after a notable delay. It came up for reauthorization again in February of 2019. And while reauthorizing the bill should be a slam-dunk every time, since the protections are large and the price tag is tiny, it remains unpassed.

House Democrats passed a version of VAWA in April 2019 with 33 Republicans, which would have reauthorized the law for five years, but it got bogged down in the Senate where competing bills from both parties doomed passage and GOP Senators argued against eliminating the “boyfriend loophole” of the existing law and restricting gun rights by preventing people convicted of stalking or abusing dating partners from buying a gun. That restriction is already in place for firearm purchases for spouses or formerly married partners convicted of abuse or under a restraining order.

Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, a survivor of sexual assault and an RMSP member, will again lead a Republican effort that seeks to address some of the more problematic gun issues.

After the House passed the bill, Ernst expressed willingness to work with Democrats on the topic but said Republicans will likely reintroduce a bill that is different, “taking what we worked on in the last Congress.” She added that she hopes it will be possible to "work through those differences in the two bills, find the areas of agreement, and move forward with a modernized bill."

The pandemic’s impact on domestic abuse virtually screams for action. But Congress has responded with indifference. In the meantime, many of the vital protections and resources that the bill provides have just disappeared.

We know from our polling at the Republican Main Street Partnership that women of all political persuasions overwhelmingly support the passing of this bill. That alone should provide enough impetus to move forward, yet the reality is exactly the opposite.

While women from both parties might agree on a surprisingly large number of basic, quality-of-life issues like this, the extreme ends of the political spectrum, fueled by a sensationalist media, inevitably focus our attention on a handful of issues on which we disagree. But when the Violence Against Women’s Act is held up in Congress, at a time when more women than ever before are being held virtually captive in pandemic-impacted, abusive households, we get nothing. No uproar. No lobbyists. No organized protests. No political pressure at all.

And that’s how women—53% of the voting public—can be effectively silenced. When we remain separated into neat (and controllable) segments by political party, geography, race, income, even neighborhood, we live outside the power equation. We allow ourselves to be distracted by dog-whistle politics. Until we can unite our voices, we cannot exert our full power.

In the long term, it behooves us to nominate and elect representatives to Congress who not only care about women’s issues but are willing to work across the aisle to help address them. This means as voters we will have to be more active in election primaries, which are currently dominated by the extreme ends of both parties. Electing more Centrists will lead to the type of bipartisan legislation that defined the original Violence Against Women Act. In the short term, we need to demand that our current legislators pay more heed to issues that so clearly impact the lives of women. If legislators suspected that their electoral future was tied to issues like the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, we would see it move from the back burner to the front immediately.

You can contact your Senators -- and demand they find a path to passing this bill. We can commemorate the waning days of the pandemic’s impact by striking a blow for women’s rights. But please, do it now. Women across the country who are trapped in abusive households need us to act.

Sarah Chamberlain is the president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership.

Photo of Brian Fitzpatrick advocating passage of the VAWA reauthorization in 2019. Credit: Tahirih Justice Center.

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