The U.S. House of Representatives in bipartisan fashion voted to reauthorize the landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) on Wednesday, legislation championed by President Joe Biden during his time in the Senate in 1994.
The final vote was 244-172, with 29 House Republicans joining all Democrats in voting yes. The measure now heads to the Senate.
The bill, which ensures legal protections for women who are victims of domestic violence and abuse, was updated and re-approved in 2000, 2005 and 2013; it briefly expired at the end of 2018 due to a government shutdown, before being reauthorized and eventually lapsing again in February 2019.
The latest version of the bill, H.R. 1620, was introduced by Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), and Brain Fitzpatrick (R-PA) in early March, and aims to build on previous iterations of the legislation.
Provisions of the bill have been updated several times since its inception in 1994, which at the time allocated $1.6 billion in financing to the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, the introduction of a so-called “rape shield law,” and the establishment of an Office of Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice.
“VAWA, which is not gender-exclusive, addresses the needs of men and women, children, persons with disabilities, homeless persons, and LGBTQ individuals, among others,” Rep. Nadler said on the House floor Wednesday morning. “The range of individuals VAWA helps is broad and should be as diverse as our communities around the country. I am pleased that this reauthorization continues our commitment to this principle.”
The updated legislation aims, in part, to expand protections for older survivors of abuse by creating additional support programs in rural areas. Some of these protections will come in the form of extending unemployment benefits to those who voluntarily leave their employment because they were victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, or sexual or another form of harassment.
The bill also provides protections for abuse survivors staying in federally-funded or assisted housing, allowing them to more easily move locations, maintain housing, or terminate a lease early after a perpetrator leaves.
Another section of the bill expands the jurisdiction of certain tribal authorities over non-Indian perpetrators who commit crimes on tribal lands.
The Office of Budget and Management released a statement on behalf of the White House Wednesday, saying the Biden administration “strongly supports” the passage of H.R. 1620.
“VAWA reauthorization is more urgent now than ever, especially when the pandemic and economic crisis have only further increased the risks of abuse and the barriers to safety for women in the United States,” the statement read in part. “The Administration urges swift passage of this legislation.”
House lawmakers debated 41 amendments to the bill, including one from Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) that would eliminate all updates to the legislation, and instead authorize a “clean extension” of items included only in the pre-2019 versions of the bill.
“My amendment to the Violence Against Women Act is simple – it provides a clean extension of the important programs funded by this legislation without the new, controversial provisions injected by Speaker Pelosi,” Stefanik said Wednesday. “Most importantly, it will ensure critical funding to support and protect millions of domestic violence and sexual abuse victims across the country.”
Pelosi and other supporters of H.R. 1620 have voiced their opposition to a yearlong extension of the act’s provisions.
The bill passed with bipartisan support in the House. But several key provisions will likely stall — if not kill — VAWA’s chances of passing the narrowly-controlled Democratic Senate.
One of these points of contention may be closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” a provision included in a 2019 House version of the bill that failed to pass the Senate. That update, which is also included in H.R. 1620, would prohibit former partners and stalkers convicted of certain violent crimes against women from purchasing firearms.
Previous iterations of the bill, which passed both the House and the Senate, only prohibited offenders from purchasing or owning a gun if they were married to, lived with, or had a child with their victim.
Critics of addressing this gap in the legislation, including the National Rifle Association, have voiced concerns that banning individuals convicted of misdemeanor crimes infringes on their right to bear arms.
“Many of those ‘offenses’ — and I’m using air quotes here — the behavior that would qualify as a stalking offense is often not violent or threatening; it involves no personal contact whatsoever,” NRA spokesperson Jennifer Baker told the New York Times in 2019, when the provision was last considered. Baker added that the update would be “too broad and ripe for abuse.”
With that update included in the renewed bill, as well as language that would increase protections for transgender youth, VAWA will likely face an uphill battle in the Senate, where at least 60 favorable votes will be needed for the bill to pass.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), who in 2019 took the lead in negotiating VAWA debates between Senate Republicans and Democrats, told reporters earlier this week that the body is “working on a bill again, taking what we worked on in the last Congress and we will likely reintroduce.”
“It will be different from the House bill,” she added, saying she hopes the two sides can "work through those differences in the two bills, find the areas of agreement and move forward with a modernized bill."
Earlier Wednesday, the House voted 222-204, with 4 Republicans joining all 218 Democrats, to remove the deadline for the Equal Rights Amendment to be ratified into the United States Constitution.
The amendment, which would guarantee equal rights under the law regardless of gender, was initially passed in the 1970s, but required 38 states to ratify it by March 22, 1979, in order to become the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Congress extended the deadline to 1982, but only 35 states ratified it. A recent federal court ruling said that the deadline had expired long ago, even though Illinois, Nevada, and Virginia have ratified the ERA in recent years.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), who along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced the Senate joint resolution to remove the deadline, said at an ERA town hall event last month that "this looks like the year that we can get it done." The two lawmakers are trying to shore up support among GOP senators to get to the 60 votes required to pass the measure.