Stay-at-home orders to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus have spurred fears about a wave of domestic violence, but the Violence Against Women Act, a key federal law on the matter, lapsed more than a year ago during a gun control debate.
Senate Republicans wanted to renew the law as-is, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, insisted that any reauthorization add “boyfriend” language that would strip gun rights from dating partners accused of domestic violence in a relationship.
Republicans said the idea needed more study, and the law lapsed during the stalemate.
“Simply put, Republicans are willing to almost unanimously approve a clean reauthorization. Democrats want to load it up with all kinds of controversial provisions that probably couldn’t pass on their own,” said Thomas Jipping, deputy director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Democrats said Republicans blocked a bill that had bipartisan support without offering an alternative.
“Our calculation was that we’re in charge now, we can pass a bill that we think is a comprehensive bill to protect all women,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “I’m hopeful that the Senate will take it up or ask to go to conference on it.”
First approved in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act instituted a federal framework and funding for a host of programs dedicated to helping victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and other crimes against women.
It led to the creation of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and other programs.
Congress last reauthorized the law in 2013 after a partisan dispute that laid the groundwork for the current impasse. Back then, the scheduled 2012 reauthorization vote dragged into the next year as Republicans objected to a Democratic push to expand the law to cover same-sex couples and to add a provision allowing illegal immigrant victims to obtain temporary visas.
Unlike that debate, Democrats didn’t get their way on their latest proposed expansion, and the Violence Against Women Act expired in February 2019.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, wanted a “clean” extension of the existing law in a spending deal working its way through Congress at the time. Democrats said they wanted to expand protections to transgender women.
Deborah Tucker, president of the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, called the lapse a sign of the times.
“There was a time when everyone looked at the issues and the need and responded in a bipartisan collective way to do the best work that they can,” she said. “I think that VAWA is another example of how legislating and working together has really broken down.”
The House passed the Democrats’ version of a revamped Violence Against Women Act in April 2019 with the support of 33 Republicans in a 263-158 vote.
On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican, and Sen. Diane Feinstein, California Democrat, spearheaded bipartisan talks for a compromised reauthorization, but those negotiations stalled in November.
Ms. Ernst and Ms. Feinstein introduced separate versions of the Violence Against Women Act late last year. Neither bill gained momentum in the Senate, though the senators said they would continue their dialogue.
Democrats said Mr. McConnell should have turned to the House bill.
Though the act has expired, funding for anti-violence programs is part of annual spending legislation and continues uninterrupted. Advocates said the chief detriment to the lapse in the law is uncertainty and confusion for groups across the country.
“It doesn’t give you the ability to plan and work towards really trying to make systemic change. That’s really where it impacts us,” said Jane Fredricksen, executive director of the FaithTrust Institute, which works to end sexual and domestic violence.
Some advocates argue that the reauthorization should be used to expand the scope of the act.
“The reauthorization process also has been used each time to address significant gaps in the current law, so failure to reauthorize and expand the law means that some survivors lack access to safety and justice,” said Deborah Vagins, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
But Mr. Jipping said there is reason to be wary of the expanded gun provisions that Democrats are proposing.
“Things like stalking have different definitions in all 50 states. That is an enormous constitutional red flag. That is not simply extending what’s already in the bill,” he said. “There ought to be separate, direct and transparent consideration of that kind of policy change.”
Given the workload in Congress and the looming elections, he said, chances for a reauthorization this year are slim.
Groups working against domestic violence have switched to another strategy: lobbying Capitol Hill to boost funding for programs, even if the Violence Against Women Act can’t be renewed. That idea has bipartisan support in both chambers.