A bipartisan group of senators announced Wednesday they reached a deal to renew the Violence Against Women Act, marking a years-long effort to modernize the landmark legislation that expired in 2018.
“I think we can almost let out a sigh of relief,” said Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault who is a sponsor of the bill. “We need to get this over the finish line and we will.”
The deal came after a controversial provision was dropped from the legislation that dealt with whether unmarried partners could keep guns if they were found guilty of violence against a dating partner. The National Rifle Association was opposed to closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” and it threatened to crater GOP support for the bill.
Asked about why the provision was dropped, Ernst told CNN, “Otherwise it doesn’t get done.”
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said that it was a “tough choice” to agree to drop the provision that would have closed that firearm loophole, which Democrats and gun reform advocates have so powerfully championed in recent years.
“It needs 60 votes and in order to get anywhere near 60 votes that provision became controversial and we had to measure the remainder of the bill against that provision,” said Durbin, referring to the votes necessary to overcome a legislative filibuster in the US Senate. “It’s a tough choice. We made a choice we thought was right.”
He also said he’d be interested in pursuing a standalone measure to close the loophole, but acknowledged it would be an uphill fight.
“This isn’t a perfect bill, and I regret that the boyfriend loophole is not addressed,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a co-sponsor of the legislation. “Many of us have tried very hard to get there, but it’s a good bill and we need to finally get a Violence Against Women Act re-authorization to the President’s desk.”
The current law bans a spouse convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence from purchasing or possessing a firearm. Democratic lawmakers have long sought to expand the law to extend that coverage to dating partners, convicted stalkers and any individual under a protective order.
Durbin signaled the Senate would take up the legislation soon.
He said Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is “just looking for a signal that we have 60 and we can pass the bill.” Durbin continued, “When we return from the President’s Day recess we hope to be able to report to him quickly.”
He also noted that Sen. Ben Ray Lujan’s absence, as he is recovering after recently suffering a stroke, is a consideration for this vote.
“It’s part of the consideration in a 50-50 Senate,” he said. “And when you need 60 votes we want as many members as possible who are voting yes on the floor and he’s a yes vote.”
Ernst added at the news conference that her goal all along was “to come to a solution that won’t just be a political talking point for one side or another, but a bill that can gain bipartisan support needed to pass the Senate and truly deliver for my fellow survivors of these life altering abuses.”
The Iowa Republican, who is a member of GOP leadership, pointed to how the bill includes bolstered resources for survivors in rural areas “who are so often forgotten.” She also said another important piece of the bill is the “effort to prevent sexual violence.”
The VAWA was originally passed in 1994 and has been championed by President Joe Biden, who co-sponsored it in the Senate at the time of its original passage. It authorizes funding for grants toward supporting domestic violence and sexual assault victims, as well as investigating and prosecuting those who commit violent crimes against women.
The law was reauthorized three times, most recently in 2013. Since it lapsed, Congress still funds domestic violence and assault programs at the same levels as 2018, when it expired.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.