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WASHINGTON — Before Congress left town for their extended winter recess, they put impeachment rancor aside and got some bipartisan business done, including raising the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21 and voting on paid parental leave for 2.1 million federal employees.
But one thing the lawmakers left undone was reauthorizing the landmark Violence Against Women Act, which expired nearly a year ago.
In years past, support for the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was firmly bipartisan. President Bill Clinton signed it into law in 1994, dramatically shifting responses to and support for victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. And it's been reauthorized ever since. But that ended in February when House Democrats included a provision to restrict partners who’ve been convicted of stalking or abuse from accessing firearms, an attempt to close the so-called “boyfriend loophole.”
There’s already a law on the books to keep guns out of the hands of spouses convicted of such crimes, and Democrats and some Republicans have long wanted to extend that restriction to partners. But the National Rifle Association is opposed, and that's why the bill is stalled in the Senate.
“The objection doesn’t make any sense if the idea is to be consistent and to protect women,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told VICE News. “At this point, we don't see why we wouldn't close that loophole.”
The 'boyfriend loophole'
Last April, a new version sailed through the House — and right past the NRA’s objections and lobbying effort to kill it — when 33 Republicans crossed party lines to support it. In such a hyper-partisan Washington, that number of crossover votes only emboldened Senate Democrats who are demanding Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell bring the House bill up for a vote.
“That's a pretty good margin that says this makes sense,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Democrats' lead negotiator in the Senate, told VICE News at the Capitol last month. “You're going to have to go back to the House if you don't do it, and my view is: Make this as simple as possible, so I would accept what the House did.”
But Senate Republicans won’t even entertain taking up the House bill. They’re united behind vulnerable incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), whom McConnell tapped to lead negotiations on behalf of the party. And, at least for now, she’s not budging.
“It's politics. It's a bunch of political talking points,” Ernst told VICE News outside the Senate chamber. “We want a balanced, bipartisan bill that will actually provide resources to victims.”
And when it comes to new gun-control provisions, which more than 30 House Republicans have already endorsed, Ernst remains unmoved.
“Their version is a nonstarter,” Ernst said before offering a bit of optimism to this political debate that’s left domestic violence victims and workers pessimistic for close to a year now. “I do think that we can find a path forward on that language.”
While Ernst blames Democrats for the lingering impasse, other female members of the Senate Judiciary Committee reject that claim.
“That's such BS,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) told reporters at the Capitol as last year’s legislative calendar slowly wound down. “That's all I have to say about that.”
While Hirono isn’t expounding on bullshit these days, even pro-gun Democrats seem on board with their party’s new position on VAWA: that abusive boyfriends and partners should be banned from accessing firearms.
“They should be,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has famously used guns in his political ads, told VICE News at the Capitol. “It makes sense to me that if a person's threatened a person and they’ve got a court order against them, maybe they shouldn't be able to have a lethal weapon with them.”
Protecting trans women
Efforts to renew the 25-year-old law are also tied up around a provision that would allow American citizens accused of domestic violence to be prosecuted in tribal courts, along with another that seeks to protect transgender women the same as their heterosexual counterparts. The delay is causing bipartisan consternation, especially after Senate negotiations broke down last fall.
“I have been a little bit, I don’t know, discouraged that we're at this place where both felt that they needed to put down versions that didn't have the support of across the party line,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told VICE News last month.
Murkowski’s open to strengthening some protective orders to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous men, but she says VAWA may not be the place for that debate.
“I'm one who's saying let's not get into an argument over guns and gun-control when what we're trying to do is to put into place some provisions that… are designed to help vulnerable women,” Murkowski said.
Still, after Democrats showed force in 2018 by capturing suburban districts with gun-control candidates, Democrats seem unified in their position this time around, which means this debate may prove one of many that will be decided by voters in November.
“The NRA shouldn't have a veto power over domestic violence and sexual assault legislation,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told VICE News at the Capitol. “There's only one party that's playing politics with this: It’s the party that's allowing the NRA to dictate what laws we pass to protect people from domestic abuse.”
Cover: This combination of pictures created on December 23, 2019 shows Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, December 19, 2019 and US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) at a media availability on November 7, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington,DC. (Photos by SAUL LOEB, NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)