Congress

House Judiciary Committee approves Violence Against Women Act reauthorization

Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and the majority Democrats on his panel approved a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved, along party lines, 22-11, a bill to reauthorize and expand programs designed to help victims of sexual and domestic violence.

The protections and programs authorized by the 1994 law lapsed during the partial government shutdown last year, but were reinstated in the January short-term fiscal 2019 spending deal. An extension was not included in last month’s deal that provided for spending through the end of fiscal 2019.

The measure would authorize a majority of the programs through fiscal 2024.

As with previous reauthorizations of the law, the measure also would expand programs and broaden the groups of people who are eligible for assistance. This year’s reauthorization would require the Office of Violence Against Women to track declinations to prosecute sexual assault cases across the country. The measure also would authorize grants for housing available to victims of domestic violence to ensure they can afford to stay in their homes, and would create a position at the Department of Housing and Urban Development to address domestic violence.

In response to the #MeToo movement, the measure also would authorize grants for programs addressing sexual harassment and bullying. New provisions would aim to curtail the purchase and possession of firearms by individuals deemed to be a threat by a court and to increase protections for gender and sexual minorities set forth by the last authorization in 2013.

Republicans, however, claimed that many of the provisions placed in the bill by the Democratic majority made the bill impossible for them to support.

“Today is a missed opportunity,” said the panel’s ranking member, Doug Collins, R-Ga. “Democrats have rushed to mark up a bill that, in our opinion, would endanger women.”

Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, objected strongly to a provision in the bill that would allow victims to voluntarily enter into an “alternative justice response,” a way to seek restitution outside of the court system. Ratcliffe claimed the provision would hinder the abilities of prosecutors and judges to charge abusers.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., attempted to amend the bill to exclude language to allow Indian tribes to prosecute nontribal members for crimes committed on reservations, claiming that nontribal members did not give up their constitutional rights by entering the reservation. His amendment was rejected 9-16, along party lines.

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Republicans Louie Gohmert of Texas and Debbie Lesko of Arizona both attempted to amend the bill to exclude language to extend protection to transgender individuals. Gohmert’s amendment would have struck all references to gender identity and transgender people from the bill.

Lesko’s amendment caused temporary confusion for its vague wording. The amendment included language to prohibit a victim-service provider from placing a woman or child into a circumstance where they felt unsafe or that their privacy may be violated. Lesko clarified that it was designed to stop women from being placed in shelters against their will with “biological males,” her term for transgender women.

Democrats objected on the grounds that they recognize transgender women as women, and because of the amendment’s wording.

“The claim that transgender women are a danger to other women in shelters is false,” said Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

Both Gohmert’s and Lesko’s amendments were also rejected along party lines.

Lesko introduced a second amendment with Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, that would have allowed faith-based organizations to establish their own standards for the assistance they provide, which also was rejected in a party line vote.

The committee rejected, 14-19, an amendment by Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., to provide firearms training to combat future instances of sexual assault and dating violence.

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., offered an amendment that would have prevented any funds authorized in the measure from going to abortion providers, but withdrew the proposal after Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., questioned whether Johnson intended to exclude funding from organizations like Planned Parenthood. Johnson suggested he would re-offer the amendment at a future date after fine-tuning the language.

The committee was able to agree on two amendments. One by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, would require the Interior Department and the attorney general to submit a report containing statistics on Indian women who are missing, murdered or the victims of sexual assault. The amendment was adopted by voice vote.

The committee also signaled agreement on an amendment from Gohmert that would allow victims of female genital mutilation to receive assistance. Nadler assured Gohmert that the language would be in the final version of the bill, but the panel held off on adopting his amendment to allow for further review.

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