One senator is a longtime foe of the National Rifle Association. The other came to national attention with a campaign ad promising to “unload” on Obamacare while firing a handgun at a shooting range. But a popular law to prevent violence against women now rides on whether California Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Iowa Republican Joni Ernst can find common ground on gun rights and several other thorny social issues.
The Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, authorizes an array of grants for law enforcement to investigate and prosecute domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking, as well as programs to support victims. First passed in 1994, the most recent version of the law expired in February, although its programs are funded through the end of the fiscal year.
The Democrat-led House — with the support of 33 Republicans — voted Thursday to pass legislation to extend and update VAWA. But the legislation faces a tenuous path in the Republican-controlled Senate, thanks in large part to the National Rifle Association or NRA, the influential lobbying group for gun rights.
The group objects, in particular, to language in the bill that expands the category of people who can be barred from possessing a gun due to domestic violence or stalking convictions. One section, for example, seeks to close the so-called “boyfriend loophole” to apply the ban not only to live in-partners and spouses, but also past or present “dating partners” convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse.
The NRA argues the definitions are too broad and the legal bar is too low. Groups working against domestic violence say many crimes against women are pleaded down from a felony to a misdemeanor, which is why the bill sets the threshold at that lower category of crime.
Conservatives also object to provisions in the House bill that would require women’s shelters accept transgender women and allow U.S. citizens to be tried in tribal courts for crimes committed on Native American land.
Instead, House Republicans have offered an extension of the existing VAWA law, with none of the disputed updates. And they and their allies have accused Democrats of trying to force a vote on new version of the legislation to make GOP lawmakers look bad.
“It’s a shame that Nancy Pelosi and anti-gun Democrats let the bill expire just to advance a political agenda,” NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said. “We’re hopeful that the Senate is able to reauthorize a bill that doesn’t contain unnecessary gun control provisions.”
Ernst, however, said in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March that she and Feinstein want to come up with “a bipartisan bill that will not only reauthorize but modernize VAWA in order to provide protections that best fit the needs of our victims and our communities.
Feinstein reiterated that point on Thursday, after the House vote. “There are a number of improvements in the House bill that I think should be in our version,” she said in a statement.
The senators and their staff continue to discuss the bill, both offices confirmed. An aide for Ernst even said the two Judiciary Committee members were chatting about the measure while riding the Senate’s underground train to a vote just two days ago. Neither office would share details of their discussions, however.
Senate Democrats, however, are unlikely to yield on the inclusion of some new gun restrictions, particularly with Feinstein, a veteran of decades of gun control battles, serving as the party’s lead negotiator. If all the Republicans in the Senate vote for the bill, they will still need the support of nine Democrats to overcome a filibuster.
Supporters of the House legislation say the additional measures are necessary to address gaps in existing law and the realities of dating violence. “The reason why the stalking provision is in there is because in so many cases stalking does lead to future acts of violence,” said Robin Lloyd, managing director at Giffords, which advocates for stricter gun laws.
Neither Lloyd nor fellow activists on either side of the debate are particularly optimistic senators will be able to craft a deal that can satisfy both parties.
“There’s absolutely room to see what can be agreed to in the Senate,” said Lloyd, but added, “There have already been many conversations with Sen. Feinstein and we still haven’t seen a clear proposal from Senate Republicans on what they’re willing do.”
Key Republicans, however, haven’t shut the door on including new gun-related language.
Asked Thursday about closing the “boyfriend loophole,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., acknowledged that, “The fact that you’re not married doesn’t mean there’s not a threat. As a matter of fact, a lot of these situations involve people who are dating.”
“I just don’t know what the standard would be, you know, how far back you go,” he continued. “I need to sit down and think about that.”
This story has been updated to correct Robin Lloyd’s name and title.
Emma Dumain contributed to this report.