In a strict party line vote, Republicans on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee rejected three attempts Tuesday (May 7) to add protections for LGBT victims of domestic abuse in a bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.
The fierceness of the partisan fight was apparent from the very start of the Committee hearing.
“I assure you that you will not get the vote of the Democratic side of the committee [for this bill] because it’s a step backward,” said U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee. Among other things, noted Conyers in his opening statement, the House bill “totally omits” protections for “vulnerable groups” included in the Senate version and “eliminates language that would help LGBT victims.”
And no Democrats did vote for the House bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The committee voted 17 to 15 to recommend to the full House a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.). (One of the no votes came from Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas)
The bill (HR 4970) is essentially identical to one introduced by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) as a substitute for a bipartisan VAWA bill in the Senate. Like Hutchison, Adams has removed all language regarding sexual orientation and gender identity from the original bill. The Hutchison substitute failed in the Democratic-controlled Senate April 26, and the version including protections for LGBT people passed.
During debate in the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Conyers offered his own substitute measure, modeled on the approved Senate bill.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) raised a point of order objection against the Conyers proposal. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee, sustained the objection, ruled that Conyers’ substitute was not germane, and refused to allow a vote on it.
When Smith then went on to allow Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) to offer an amendment, Conyers immediately registered his plan to raise a point of order against it. He later withdrew it.
During committee debate, two Democrats joined Conyers in noting the importance of keeping the language that would address LGBT victims.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va) noted that one in four women and one in seven men experience severe physical violence from an intimate partner. And Rep. Sheilah Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) expressed dismay over the Adams’ bill exclusion of LGBT people.
“Lesbian women—are they any less women?” asked Jackson-Lee. “… Why, then, are they not covered?”
Jackson-Lee said the tradition of the House on the VAWA bill has been to include people, not exclude them.
Adams defended herself against Jackson-Lee’s claim that she was trying to eliminate any victims from the benefits of the legislation, saying the bill was “for all victims, non-gender specific.”
Openly gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) offered an amendment to add back language concerning sexual orientation and gender identity to the law’s non-discrimination provision. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) spoke in opposition to the amendment, saying sexual orientation and gender identity are “self-professed qualifications” that “cannot be independently verified.” King also said nothing in the House bill prevented LGBT people from accessing services.
Polis replied that religion might be considered a “self-identified” category, too, and that sexual orientation and gender identity are immutable characteristics. But King responded that he knows of no way to verify the sexual orientation or gender identity.
Rep. Jackson-Lee challenged King to present his evidence that sexual orientation or gender identity is self-professed.
The Polis amendment was rejected on a 14 to 18 vote.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) introduced an amendment to insert sexual orientation and gender identity to the bill’s provisions to help “underserved populations.” The Senate bill includes help for groups underserved because of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Quigley called the provision “vital,” noting that some domestic violence organizations turn away transgender people and gay men and that LGBT people are in “desperate need” of services.
Chairman Smith opposed the amendment, saying it is a “significant change in focus” for VAWA and that there is nothing in current law to prevent LGBT from accessing services and that there is no “meaningful evidence of a problem.”
The amendment failed, 16 nays to 13 ayes.
Rep. Nadler also introduced an amendment, with Polis, to ensure funding would be available for groups serving LGBT victims of domestic violence. Adams opposed the amendment, saying the funding is designated to help women.
“Women can be lesbian, can be transgender, can be all kinds of things,” said Nadler. He noted that gender neutral language would not ensure that funds could get to LGBT groups to serve victims.
The amendment failed on a vote of 12 ayes to 15 nays.
It’s not clear when the bill will reach the floor of the House. But, assuming the Adams bill passes the full House, action will then move to a Senate-House conference committee. There, a final version will have to be agreed upon. And during that meeting, it’s always possible that horse-trading will lead to elimination of language including LGBT people.
The version of the VAWA reauthorization bill approved by the Senate includes language specifying that VAWA-funded programs cannot discriminate based on the sexual orientation or gender identity of a victim. It includes funding for “underserved” populations “who face barriers in accessing and using victim services because of various reasons, including because of sexual orientation and gender identity.” And it provides that certain grants under the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act can be used for “developing, enlarging, or strengthening programs and projects to provide services and responses targeting male and female victims of domestic violence… whose ability to access traditional services and responses is affected by their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence strongly supported the Senate bill and opposed the Adams bill (HR 4970).
The reauthorization bill has become a battleground over women voters, too —with Democrats charging that Republicans are showing no respect for women by trying to take away rights and Republicans charging that Democrats are trying to add language to make the VAWA unsupportable by Republicans.
VAWA has been a popular piece of legislation with both political parties since 1994, when it was first passed. But this year, it has become a lightning rod for partisan conflict. Democrats see it as a means of increasing protections for victims of domestic abuse; Republicans see it as an excuse to funnel federal funds to progressive groups, such as LGBT health clinics. Both see it as an important tool in attracting support from women voters.
The bill provides $650 million annually for programs to prevent domestic abuse, to train law enforcement personnel on how to handle incidents, and provide shelter and other services to victims.