WASHINGTON -- The House gave final approval Thursday to a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, sending a bipartisan Senate measure to President Barack Obama after a House plan endorsed by conservatives was defeated.
The legislation passed on a 286-138 vote, with 199 Democrats joining 87 Republicans in support of reauthorizing the landmark 1994 law, which assists victims of domestic and sexual violence. It amounted to a significant victory for the president and congressional Democrats, who have assailed Republicans for months for stalling the legislation. The successful measure passed the Senate last month with 78 votes -- including those of every woman, all Democrats and just more than half of Republicans.
The alternative the House unveiled Feb. 22 immediately came under sharp criticism from Democrats and women's and human rights groups for failing to include the Senate bill's protections for gay, bisexual or transgender victims of domestic abuse. The House bill also eliminated "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" from a list of "populations" that face barriers to receiving victim services -- and stripped certain provisions regarding Native American women on reservations.
With House Republicans divided, the leadership agreed that it would allow a vote on the Senate bill if the House version could not attract sufficient votes, and it failed on a vote of 257-166. Sixty Republicans joined 197 Democrats in opposition; 164 Republicans and two Democrats voted for it.
The newly passed legislation creates and expands federal programs to assist communities with law enforcement and aiding victims of domestic and sexual abuse. Most notably, the bill goes further by offering protections for gay, bisexual and transgender victims of domestic abuse, as well as allowing American Indian women who are assaulted on reservations by non-Indians to take their case to tribal courts, which otherwise would not have jurisdiction over assailants who do not live on tribal land. (The failed House bill offered the same provision, but also offered non-Indian defendants the possibility to take their case to a federal court).
The legislation's approval underscored the divide in the Republican party as it struggles to regain its footing with women after its 2012 electoral drubbing among female voters. House Republicans --even split at the leadership level -- ultimately bowed to what they saw as the best interest of their party nationally, even if that meant overriding the will of the majority of rank-and-file Republicans.
The vote represented the third time in two months that Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has brought a bill to the floor without having the support of most House Republicans. A deal to avert automatic tax increases at the start of the year, as well as a relief package for states hit by Hurricane Sandy, also passed the House largely with the support of Democratic votes. "If we're supplying the votes, we should be helping to write the bills," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., highlighting the GOP dilemma on some of these high-profile votes.
At the leadership level, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who helped engineer the vote, ultimately opposed the bill, while the Reps. Kevin McCarthy of California, the chamber's No. 3 Republican, and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman, both voted in favor. House Republican Conference chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, who spearheaded the House's bill, also voted in favor of the final, Senate-passed legislation.
Republicans said their version of the bill included protections for "all women," a point they repeatedly made on the House floor Thursday. But the very public controversy surrounding reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which expired during the last Congress when the House was unable to reach a compromise, highlighted problems the GOP is having with female voters.
During the 2012 presidential election, Mr. Obama beat his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, among women by 11 percentage points, earning 55 percent of the female vote, and Republicans lost several high-profile races amid a backlash from female voters after the GOP candidates made controversial statements about rape or abortion. Though Republicans maintained House control, Democratic House candidates won 56 percent of the female vote, according to exit polls.
In February, more than 1,300 women's and human rights groups signed a letter supporting the Senate legislation.