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In Victory for Obama, House Backs Domestic Violence Law

Terry O'Neill rallies against House version of VAWA. (Photo: Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights / Flickr)

Washington — The House voted on Thursday to pass the Senate’s bipartisan reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, in a big victory for President Obama and Democrats in Congress.

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The legislation passed on a vote of 286 to 138, with 199 Democrats joining 87 Republicans to push the reauthorization of the landmark 1994 law, which assists victims of domestic and sexual violence, across the finish line.

Though the reauthorization passed the Senate earlier this month with 78 votes — including those of every woman, all Democrats and just over half of Republicans — a version unveiled by the House last Friday immediately came under sharp criticism from Democrats and women’s and human rights groups for failing to include certain provisions offered in the Senate bill.

The House bill excluded specific protections for gay, bisexual or transgender victims of domestic abuse — eliminating “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” from a list of “underserved populations” that face barriers to receiving victim services — and stripped certain provisions regarding Native American women on reservations.

Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, had committed to passing the legislation in the House only with bipartisan support. On Tuesday night, with House Democrats firmly united against the Republican version, the House Rules Committee approved a bifurcated process to consider the Senate legislation; on Thursday, the House first voted on its substitute amendment and then, when that version failed to pass, it took up and passed the Senate version.

On Thursday, Democrat after Democrat stood on the House floor, urging their colleagues to reject what they said was the weaker House version and to vote for the underlying Senate-passed bill.

Representative Gwen Moore, Democrat of Wisconsin and a victim of domestic and sexual violence herself, spoke passionately about the need to pass the Senate’s reauthorization bill.

“I pray that this body will do as the Senate has done and come together as one to protect all women from violence,” Ms. Moore said. “As I think about the L.G.B.T. victims who are not here, the native women who are not here, the immigrants who aren’t in this bill, I would say, as Sojourner Truth would say, ‘Ain’t they women?'”

“Ain’t they women?” she repeated, emphatically.

Republicans said that their version of the bill included protections for “all women,” a point they repeatedly made on the House floor Thursday. But the controversy surrounding the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which expired during the last Congress when the House was unable to reach a compromise, highlighted problems Republicans are having with female voters. During the 2012 presidential election, Mr. Obama beat Mitt Romney among women by 11 percentage points, and Republicans lost high-profile races amid a backlash from female voters after the Republican candidate made controversial statements about rape or abortion.

Earlier this month, more than 1,300 women’s and human rights groups signed a letter supporting the Senate legislation.

With only 87 Republicans voting in favor of the Senate-passed bill, the legislation passed with significant numbers of Democratic votes, marking the third time in two months that Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, has brought a bill to the floor without having the support of a majority of his conference. A deal to avert automatic tax increases at the beginning of the year, as well as a relief package for states hit by Hurricane Sandy, also passed the House largely with the support of Democratic votes.

The trend has worried and angered conservative members of the conference. Speaking at a public conversation with fellow conservative members on Wednesday, Representative Raúl Labrador, Republican of Idaho, said that while he did not necessarily oppose the content of the Senate’s version of the Violence Against Women Act, he was frustrated with the possibility that Mr. Boehner would yet again bring legislation to the floor that required Democratic votes to pass.

“It’s a huge concern,” he said.

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