Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein have worked together this year on legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. That is, until negotiations stalled over language dictating whether a dating partner or stalker could be barred from owning a firearm.
The fight over the so-called “boyfriend loophole” has held up much-needed funding for programs and resources to help abused women and children.
In April, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed its Violence Against Women Act [VAWA] reauthorization bill 263-158, with support from 33 Republicans.
The Republican-led Senate, however, has not brought it up for debate. Instead, Ernst introduced her own piece of legislation, while Feinstein moves forward with a Senate version of the House bill.
“I’ve been working with Senator Ernst on a bipartisan path forward and plan to continue those negotiations,” said Feinstein, in a statement. “Given the overwhelming House vote and the strength of that bill, however, now is the right time to introduce it.”
“This bill is not a Democratic bill, it’s not a Republican bill; this bill is a survivors’ bill,” Feinstein said, Wednesday on the Senate floor. “It’s written with the help of survivors who know what’s needed in the real world.”
She has accused Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of directing Feinstein not to work with her because she faces a tough reelection in 2020.
“After months of work and mountains of effort went into working toward a bipartisan bill, at some point, someone pressed the big red button of partisan politics and the Democrats refused to work together any longer, walking away from the real progress we made,” Ernst said, this week in a conference call with Iowa reporters.
Gun Provisions Stall Bill
Under the House legislation, supported by Iowa’s three Democratic representatives, people convicted of stalking or dating violence could not possess a firearm.
Ernst and her Republican colleagues in the Senate view the provision as skirting “due process” and unlawfully stripping citizens of their 2nd Amendment rights.
It is the same argument she has used when confronted with questions about “red flag laws,” arguing the federal government would be given too much power in determining whether someone could own a gun.
“That was something that Dianne and I were working on together in my bill, and we actually had come very, very close to language that would be acceptable to both Republicans and Democrats,” Ernst said, when asked by reporters about the boyfriend loophole. “But, unfortunately, a foot was put down and Dianne was told that she would introduce the House version of the bill and to not work with me anymore.”
The National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun lobby, has targeted the boyfriend loophole provision in the bill, arguing it is “too broad and ripe for abuse.”
“Dozens of Iowa women have been killed as a result of the ‘boyfriend loophole,’ and yet Senate Republicans today are siding with the NRA by refusing to close the deadly loophole,” said Connie Simmons, a volunteer with the Iowa chapter of Moms Demand Action, in a statement.
Simmons’ niece was shot and killed by her estranged husband.
“The Violence Against Women Act is essential to creating safer communities for women, but without the provisions to to disarm domestic abusers, far too many Iowa women will still be in danger of being killed by their dating partners, simply because they are unmarried,” Simmons said.
An Everytown for Gun Safety analysis of FBI data found from 2013-2017, 37 Iowa women were killed by intimate partners.
“Sixty-five percent of these homicides were committed by dating partners, making Iowa women nearly twice as likely to be killed by a dating partner than by a current or former spouse,” the report read.
Of Ernst, Schumer said she rejected the House bill because she was “afraid of the NRA.”
“Ask Sen. Ernst if she believes a boyfriend of a woman who has gotten a protection order issued against him should get a gun. Sen. Ernst evidently believes yes,” Schumer said, according to Politico, “because in the bill she’s putting forward it doesn’t have that provision even if it did in the House.”
Working Toward A Compromise
Ernst’s reauthorization bill provides a 10% increase over the Democrats’ proposal in funding for shelters, hotlines and other resources for survivors; triples the support for rape prevention and education above current levels; increases penalties for female genital mutilation; and recognizes sex trafficking as a form of sexual assault.
“The point should be making sure that we are authorizing these programs and the funding that will go to benefit survivors,” Ernst told reporters. “There’s a billion dollars on the line, folks. A billion dollars of funding that should go out to our shelters, to our hotlines, to those that are providing the support and resources to our families in their time of need.”
The proposal does not include new provisions for the LGBTQ community or restrictions on gun ownership for abusive partners, and rolls back protections for Native American women, which are part of the House bill.
Both Ernst and Feinstein spoke Wednesday on the Senate floor about their respective pieces of legislation. The senators have said they will continue working together to pass a VAWA reauthorization bill.
In her remarks, Feinstein pointed to the LGBTQ and firearm provisions as sticking points for some Republicans in the Senate.
“Our bill keeps guns out of the hands of domestic abusers,” said Feinstein. “It does this by adding intimate partners and stalkers to the existing list of individuals who can be banned from possessing firearms. We know the presence of a firearm in a domestic violence situation increases the odds of a woman being killed by 500%. That’s a major increase in risk, so it only makes sense to take guns away from convicted domestic abusers who may use them to kill their spouses or partners.”
The LGBTQ language, Feinstein said, seeks to clarify an existing part of the law allowing federal grant recipients to use funds to train staff to recognize and combat discrimination.
“Unfortunately, the law wasn’t clear and organizations are still uncertain if they can use funds for this purpose,” she said. “This bill simply clarifies that intent. It’s a small but very important change to help this at-risk community. There has been surprising resistance from some on the Republican side to include this modest language.”
On The Campaign Trail
The boyfriend loophole and VAWA have been policy points for Democrats on the presidential campaign trail this year.
Former Vice President Joe Biden brought up VAWA at the debate Wednesday night — pointing out he wrote the original bill in 1994 — when asked about the “Me Too” movement and the harassment of women in America. His campaign recently released a TV ad in Iowa highlighting his work on the bill.
“The first thing I would do is make sure we pass the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, which I wrote,” Biden said, at the debate.
“It’s a gigantic issue,” he said a few seconds later. “And we have to make it clear from the top, from the president on down, that we will not tolerate it. We will not tolerate this culture.”
In a press release about his plan to “end violence against women,” the Biden campaign noted the bill’s holdup in the Senate.
“Leader McConnell is refusing to bring the bill to the floor of the Senate.”
Ernst’s opponents in the Senate campaign, however, have directly tied her to the lack of movement on the legislation.
An article Wednesday in The Hill described how Feinstein “tried to get consent to vote on the House-passed VAWA bill by the end of the year, including allowing both sides to offer two amendments.”
But Ernst objected to a vote on the House bill, saying it had no chance to pass the GOP-controlled chamber.
Democratic Senate candidate Eddie Mauro said Ernst and the NRA objected to the firearm provisions in the Democrats’ bill.
“Joni and the NRA should be ashamed for blocking a bill that protects women from violence — but we know they aren’t going to change,” Mauro said, in a press release.
By Elizabeth Meyer