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House Passes Bill Protecting Domestic Abuse Victims; GOP Split Over Gun Restrictions

The Democratic additions to the Violence Against Women Act exposed fault lines within the GOP as it wrestles with how to regain support among women.
J. Scott Applewhite
The Democratic additions to the Violence Against Women Act exposed fault lines within the GOP as it wrestles with how to regain support among women.

Updated at 12:49 p.m. ET

The House of Representatives approved legislation renewing the Violence Against Women Act with new provisions that restrict gun ownership and expand transgender rights.

The National Rifle Association opposed the bill — putting GOP lawmakers in a tough position of voting against a measure protecting victims of domestic and sexual violence or opposing the politically powerful gun lobby.

The vote was 263 to 158, with 33 Republicans joining all but one Democrat to pass the measure. One GOP member voted present.

The Democratic additions to the law exposed fault lines within the GOP as it wrestles with how to regain support among women.

"I think we need to speak to everyone, including women, and talk about the issues they care about and take reasonable, pragmatic positions, and this is one of them," Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., told NPR. He is the lone GOP co-sponsor of a bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. He represents a swing district and was re-elected in the 2018 Democratic wave fueled by women.

However, House Republicans broadly object to at least four new policies added to the bill to reauthorize VAWA — which expired in February when Democrats objected to GOP efforts to include a short-term extension of the law in a spending deal. But the most controversial are new provisions to lower the criminal threshold to bar someone from buying a gun to include misdemeanor convictions of domestic abuse or stalking charges. Current law applies to felony convictions.

It would also close the so-called "boyfriend loophole" to expand existing firearm prohibitions to include dating partners convicted of abuse or stalking charges. "Sometimes things are as simple as this: If we are doing a Violence Against Women Act and we are trying to save lives, why would you not close a simple loophole that says if someone has been convicted — convicted, not accused — convicted of domestic violence, that they not have access to a gun," said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who has shared her experiences growing up with an abusive father who owned a gun in her efforts to get the bill passed.

The NRA called for a "no" vote and notified Capitol Hill offices this week that the organization was "scoring" how lawmakers vote on the bill to measure future ratings and endorsements in elections. Congressional Republicans rarely run afoul of NRA positions on legislation.

NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said the group supports the underlying VAWA law, just not the new gun restrictions. "The gun control lobby and anti-gun politicians are intentionally politicizing the Violence Against Women Act as a smokescreen to push their gun control agenda," she told NPR. Gun rights activists say the new provisions are too low of a threshold to deny someone a constitutional right for the rest of their life.

But for Fitzpatrick, it's a no-brainer. "I understand for some of my colleagues that may be controversial. For me, it's not," he said. Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, worked closely with Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., on the House version of the VAWA update. "I tell my colleagues all the time, I think the biggest threat to the Second Amendment is when you allow all of these gun crimes to occur unaddressed, because that erodes people's confidence and trust in people that are legitimately trying to protect themselves and their families and their homes."

The VAWA vote is pressure-testing the NRA's ability to keep GOP lawmakers in line. "I don't know why they're key-voting it. They shouldn't," said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who told NPR he will break with the NRA and vote for it on the floor even though he supports their position. For many Republicans, casting a "no" vote on a bill to protect women from violence is politically untenable. At a closed-door meeting earlier this week, GOP lawmakers privately fumed at the double-edged political sword of having to vote against the NRA or against a bill to help women.

Republicans countered with an unaltered bill to extend VAWA in the short term until a deal can be reached, but Democrats have the votes, the party broadly supports the changes to the law and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has made clear the new majority will hold firm.

Democrats successfully fought Republicans over the most recent VAWA renewal in 2013 because it included new provisions to protect same-sex couples and certain immigrants. It was a two-year battle in which Democrats ultimately claimed victory over conservative Republican opposition with help from bipartisan support in the Senate. "We had a big ongoing fight, until we made it too hot for them to handle," Pelosi told reporters last week. She brushed off NRA opposition. "I don't see that it has much impact on the passage of the bill in the House of Representatives," she said.

Democrats plan to follow a similar road map to renew VAWA this time. "Our calculation was: We're in charge now. We can pass a bill that we think is a comprehensive bill to protect all women," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters on Tuesday.

While the law is currently expired, Congress will continue to fund all of the bill's programs through the annual appropriations process whether or not it's renewed quickly. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the updated VAWA authorizes about $1 billion annually over a five-year renewal period.

There are other objections. Republicans also oppose a new provision to allow U.S. citizens to be tried in tribal courts for crimes of domestic or dating violence committed by non-native perpetrators on native lands; a provision to create a pathway for an "alternative justice response" as a form of mediation between victims and abusers; and the expansion of existing protections to include transgender victims. Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., an abuse survivor, attempted to strip provisions that would allow transgender women access to shelters and the ability to serve in prisons that align with the sex with which they identify, but it failed along party lines. Republicans want those access and sentencing guidelines to continue to correspond with biological sex assigned at birth.

The Senate has not yet advanced its own VAWA reauthorization, which Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., are working on. It is unclear if the gun provisions in the House bill can clear the Senate, but Democrats say they will demand their inclusion.

"The NRA is wrong to oppose this provision, they are wrong to oppose this entire bill, it shows where they are when it comes to safety and when it comes to protecting women, and we will fight to keep it in this bill," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who is running for president.

President Trump has not yet weighed in on whether he would sign it if it reaches his desk with the gun or transgender provisions intact. Echoing House Republicans, White House spokesman Judd Deere said, "The White House supports a clean extension of VAWA."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.