A landmark federal law enacted 24 years ago to govern investigations and prosecutions of violent crimes against women is set to expire at the end of this month and Congress has little time to rush to its rescue.
The House plans to be in session only four days more before the Violence Against Women Act expires after Sept. 30, and lawmakers still have to pass a complex series of funding measures to avert a government shutdown when the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
Republican leaders are aware of the political risks of letting the popular act lapse weeks before the midterm elections. AshLee Strong, spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, said negotiations are underway between the House and Senate, and she was optimistic they would reach a resolution.
The law “will not lapse,” Strong said.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) filed legislation Thursday that would extend the current Violence Against Women Act for six months and give Congress more time to negotiate changes to it.
The only other pending measure to reauthorize the 1994 act was introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) in late July, just before the House left for the August recess, and it hasn’t gone through the normal committee process. The bill’s 154 co-sponsors are all Democrats, indicating that it is unlikely to be the legislation that the Republican-controlled House would take up.
Pressure to reauthorize the law is building among rank-and-file Republicans. Late last week, 46 House Republicans urged Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) in a letter to hold a vote before the law expires.
Two-thirds of the Republican signers face particularly tough reelection races, including California Reps. Mimi Walters (Irvine), Jeff Denham (Turlock), David Valadao (Hanford) and Steve Knight (Palmdale).
Reauthorizing the law must compete for time with several major items left on the House agenda this month, including funding the government and passing a new farm bill.
Even if the House acts, the Senate must vote as well before it sends a bill to President Trump for his signature. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he couldn’t say where negotiations with the House stand.
“It’s mixed up with three or four other bills that we’re trying to reach agreements on,” Grassley said.
Signed by President Clinton on Sept. 13, 1994, and championed by former Vice President Joe Biden, who was then the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, the Violence Against Women Act has been reauthorized three times.
The law expired once in 2011 for two years due to Republican objections that it was being expanded to protect immigrants in the country illegally, Native Americans and LGBTQ people. Congress and President Obama reached agreement on an extension in 2013.
The act provides federal grants for local advocacy groups who work with domestic violence survivors and it toughened federal charges for abusers.
Under Jackson Lee’s bill, the law would expand to allow law enforcement officials to remove weapons from domestic abusers who are not legally allowed to own them. It also would significantly increase funding for rape crisis centers.
Despite the absence of Republican support for her bill, Jackson Lee said she hopes it will be considered a starting point for the discussion.
“We have a good bill. We believe in cooperation and we’re willing to engage,” she said. “But we also know that we have victims that cannot wait any longer and that should be the litmus test for Republicans.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) urged Republicans to take up the Jackson Lee bill quickly rather than try to pass a new tax cuts package, which the Senate is unlikely to pass.
“If the House GOP can make time to vote on yet another GOP tax scam for the rich, they must not leave Washington at the end of September without having passed this vital VAWA reauthorization into law,” she said in a statement.