After years of failing to pass legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, the Senate may actually be close to introducing a bill with support from both parties.
Senate and White House aides involved in months of negotiations on a VAWA reauthorization bill tell HuffPost that despite the relative silence on the subject, they’re feeling optimistic about unveiling bipartisan legislation ― and soon.
“We are encouraged by the progress in the Senate and are looking forward to a bipartisan bill being introduced this fall,” said a White House official familiar with talks on a VAWA bill.
A Senate Democratic aide added, “We are engaged in productive, bipartisan conversations and hope to introduce a bipartisan bill in the coming weeks.”
VAWA is one of President Joe Biden’s signature accomplishments; he’s made the 1994 law a central piece of his legacy. It was the first major federal legislative package focused on stopping violence against women, and it has since provided billions of dollars in grants for life-saving programs aimed at stemming domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking.
Rates of domestic violence declined by more than 50% between 1993 and 2008, after VAWA became law, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Congress has to periodically reauthorize the law to update its grant programs and, perhaps more importantly, to strengthen the law based on what victims, survivors and advocates say are gaps in services to vulnerable populations.
But Senate Republicans let VAWA’s authorization expire in 2019 because they opposed a House-passed bipartisan bill and couldn’t agree among themselves on what to put into a bill of their own. Specifically, they opposed provisions in the House bill that would have expanded protections for LGBTQ and Native American victims of violence. They also opposed a gun safety provision that would have prohibited people who have been convicted of abusing their dating partners from owning firearms, closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole.” Senate Democrats, meanwhile, fully embraced the House bill.
VAWA’s authorization has been lapsed ever since. It doesn’t mean the law itself expired; it means uncertainty for its grant programs and no ability to update the law with new protections that domestic violence advocates say are badly needed.
The House already passed its latest bipartisan VAWA bill in March, and it’s a lot like the bill it passed in 2019. So it’s on the Senate, again, to figure out a way forward.
The last time the Senate passed a bipartisan VAWA bill was in 2013.
Getting details on when, exactly, senators plan to introduce their forthcoming bill and what it will include has been difficult to nail down. But Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) may be the most important person in the Senate for getting a VAWA bill across the finish line.
Her team has spent months hammering out the tribal portion of the bill ― a regular sticking point between the two parties ― and is nearly done. Murkowski has long been an ally to Native American tribes, so whatever language she ultimately crafts will likely have their support. That’s a key piece to getting any VAWA bill done.
That still leaves a need for bipartisan support on new protections for LGBTQ victims of violence and the gun safety provision, if that makes it in at all. Murkowski, once again, will be key to helping bring Republicans on board with a final bill.
“I’m working with everybody. Democrats, Republicans, independents, advocates,” Murkowski told HuffPost in March. “I want to get VAWA reauthorized.”
Her office did not respond to a request for comment on when she will be done with the tribal piece of the bill and what protections it will include.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) are officially leading the effort on the VAWA reauthorization legislation. Ernst deferred to Murkowski to put together the tribal portion, though.
Aides to Durbin and Ernst did not respond to a request for comment on what to expect in the final bill.
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