By Lucy Madison
The GOP-led House on Wednesday voted to approve the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a piece of legislation that is the subject of partisan controversy despite the fact that both parties hope to see some it passed in some form.
After an impassioned debate on the House floor Wednesday, the bill passed with 222 members voting in favor and 205 voting against. But now, both chambers of Congress must figure out how to reconcile the House bill with the Senate-passed version.
VAWA, which aims to protect victims of domestic violence, was originally passed in 1994 and has been reauthorized twice since then, with broad bipartisan support. The bill's reauthorization has become a source of strife this year as Democrats and Republicans squabble over the scope of its protections.
In April, the Senate hammered out legislation that included protections for Native Americans, undocumented immigrants, and gay, lesbian and transgender victims in addition to those already protected under the legislation. That bill passed late last month with bipartisan support.
The House version of the bill, however, stripped out those expansions. Even with the last-minute addition by Republicans of an amendment aimed at quelling criticism over the discrepancies between two versions, Democrats decried the legislation for excluding certain groups and undermining its broader purpose.
"Let's call this bill what it's really is. It's not the Violence Against Women act, but the Open Season for Violence Against Women Act," said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., in a press conference Wednesday.
In debate on the House floor, Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., recounted her own experience as a rape victim when discussing VAWA.
"As a member of this body, as a survivor of sexual assault, battery, from age five through my teenage years, through my early adulthood, I can tell you that it is very traumatic to be here in this body today and to find my colleagues not taking the recommended updates -- that people who work with domestic violence victims, those advocates, law enforcement, DAs, the FBI, the Department of Justice, have put in front of them as best practices of what we need to defend all women from violence," Moore said.
In addition to outcry over the lack of protections for Native Americans and LGBT victims, Democrats have expressed particular concern about the Republican bill's measures pertaining to undocumented immigrants. They argue the bill would it make more difficult for some victims of domestic abuse to stay in America after reporting acts of domestic violence.
Another issue is the bill's mandate that work authorization be denied to immigrants who are the subject of a pending investigation or prosecution, which could prohibit some abused immigrants from finding work. Opponents say that would also discourage battered women from filing charges or leaving a situation of domestic abuse.
"Instead of seeking to expand protections, this new House bill puts victims of domestic violence in greater danger and excludes vulnerable populations from critical protections," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, in a statement. "This House bill does not advance protections against discrimination, but would further stigmatize particular populations."
Republicans, however, contend that their bill is gender neutral and protects all - so there's no need to single certain groups out.
"This is a victims centered bill," said Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Fla., the sponsor of the GOP bill and a survivor of domestic abuse. "As we look to reauthorize VAWA, we want to make sure that we're not politicizing this issue, but just reauthorizing it. If you look at the bill, and what is in it, you will see that it is centered around our victims."
In remarks on the House Floor, Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx, of North Carolina, accused Democrats of politicizing the fight to protect victims of violence.
"It really pains me to see my colleagues across the aisle make the kind of accusations that they make about Republicans being unconcerned about the issue of violence against women," Foxx said. "How could they possibly accuse us of not being concerned about that issue? All Republicans are concerned about violence against anyone."
Despite the distance between the House and Senate version of the bill, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., expressed confidence Tuesday that the two chambers would be able to reach a compromise.