After Great Difficulty House Approves More Expansive Violence Against Women Act

February 28, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

It took the U.S. House of Representatives far too long, but it has finally passed a more inclusive and bolder reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). 

By a vote of 286 – 138, the House passed the reauthorization version approved by the Senate earlier this month. The measure will now be sent to President Obama for his signature.

The Senate reauthorization was passed during the 112th Congress, but died when the House refused to support it, opting instead for a more limited version. The Senate reauthorization, sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), extends services to help more victims of domestic violence. It does so by providing expanded jurisdiction to tribal courts to prosecute domestic violence. The reauthorization also includes more services for college students, undocumented immigrants and members of the LGBT community.

Leahy applauded the House for passing a “fully-inclusive, life-saving legislation with a bipartisan vote” but also noted that supporting such legislation should not have been such a heavy lift. Indeed VAWA was passed with strong bipartisan support in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000 and 2005 without much wrangling.

“We made the Violence Against Women Act our top priority in this Congress but it should not have taken this long,” Leahy continued.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), a leading voice opposing the House Republican’s weak VAWA reauthorization, said it was time to bolster the law. “It is critical that we continue these programs and, with this subsequent reauthorization, those safeguards will be afforded to the LGBT, Native American, and immigrant communities as well.”

This time around, as The New York Times and others pointed, the Republican-led House was obstinately opposed to the reauthorization legislation because it extended services to undocumented immigrants and the LGBT community. In a Feb. 9 editorial, The Times blasted Republican opposition as “driven largely by an antigay, anti-immigrant agenda.” Right-wing organizations, such as the Family Research Council, also mounted strident attacks on the reauthorization, claiming it would run up deficits and undermine individual freedoms. Longtime right-wing activist Phyllis Schafly called the VAWA reauthorization a “slush fund for the feminist lobby.”


The matter of providing more power to tribal courts to prosecute domestic violence also spurred opposition in the 113th Congress. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) refused to support reauthorization, in part, saying he was troubled about the “conferring of criminal jurisdiction to some Indian tribal governments over all persons on Indian country, including non-Indians.”

But in an extensive ACS Issue Brief about the extreme rise of domestic violence on tribal lands, law professor Matthew L.M. Fletcher argued that combatting the “epidemic” of domestic violence could only be done with the expansion of tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians.

So what prompted the House to finally support the bolder reauthorization? In part to combat the Republican Party’s tattered image among large swaths of women voters and its image as a House incapable of working with the Obama administration and Democrats. (Of course it remains highly likely that the radically anti-government forces that grip the Republican Party are unlikely to budge on spending and revenue matters, comprehensive immigration reform, climate change regulation and measures to curb gun violence.)

TPM’s Sahil Kapur also notes that the House leadership before passing the Senate reauthorization bill, voted on its own weaker version, though knowing its version was doomed. Kapur says groups like the right-wing Heritage Foundation are threatening to “target Republicans who voted in favor of the plan with the expanded versions.”