Senate Democrats pick fight over gun provisions in VAWA

Bipartisan talks broke down over renewing law aimed at curbing domestic violence

Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar urged Republicans to stand up to the National Rifle Association after a dispute over gun provisions led to a breakdown in bipartisan talks over renewing the Violence Against Women Act. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Democrats on Wednesday introduced the same Violence Against Women Act reauthorization bill passed by the House, days after they say talks with Republicans about a compromise broke down over controversial gun provisions.  

The entire Democratic caucus has backed the bill, which has provisions restricting gun rights of certain convicts that helped spur the split with Senate Republicans. While promoting the measure during a news conference Wednesday, Democrats blamed the National Rifle Association’s sway in the chamber for the Republicans’ reluctance to back the bill.

“We call on our Republican colleagues to not hide in the shadows here ... to at least stand up to the NRA on this very focused provision,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a presidential candidate, said at the event.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who has taken the GOP lead in the chamber, has called the House bill a “nonstarter” in the Senate. In a floor speech last week after negotiations broke down, Ernst said that “once again Democrats are putting politics ahead of people.”

She repeated the belief in a statement released just before an event held by her Democratic colleagues.

“I hope Senate Democrats don’t decide to completely turn their backs on our progress and the survivors this bill is intended to support,” Ernst said. “I still stand ready to work in a bipartisan way.”

Ernst has said she plans on introducing her own version of the legislation that may get backing from Senate leadership and President Donald Trump. Without some bipartisanship, neither bill has much chance of passing the Senate, where rules require at least 60 votes to advance legislation.

Ernst’s Democratic counterpart in the negotiations, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, cited the long delay in negotiations over three key provisions in the bill since the House passed its legislation in April. The two sides have tried to hash out an agreement over the gun provision, as well as further expansions of tribal jurisdiction and LGBTQ protections.

“It was obvious that we weren't going to come to an agreement at that time,” Feinstein said of her work with Ernst. “So I indicated to her that I was going to introduce it, and happy to continue, meeting with her on the three points, that I think are the points of issue.”

Appropriations have been made for programs normally authorized by the Violence Against Women Act after the law lapsed.

‘Not a good sign’

While Senate Democrats have held to the gun provisions that proved the most controversial in negotiations, Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, acknowledged “it’s certainly not a good sign” for the bill’s future that the two parties have split on the issue.

The House bill would lower the criminal threshold to bar someone from buying a gun to include misdemeanor convictions of stalking and a broader swath of domestic abuse crimes. The law currently applies to felony convictions and a subset of misdemeanors.

Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act has remained controversial since its original passage in 1994. The law started with a focus on abuse between married partners and has slowly expanded in subsequent reauthorizations.

A 2013 reauthorization law passed after several years of negotiations over provisions like expanding tribal jurisdiction to nontribal defendants in domestic abuse cases.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a quarter of women experience intimate partner violence and 1 in 7 has been stalked by an intimate partner.

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