With a nod to Women’s History Month, the Democratic-led House passed two measures Wednesday, one designed to protect women from domestic violence, the other to remove the deadline for states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act passed 244-172 with 29 Republicans joining Democrats in supporting the legislation.
The resolution to repeal the ERA's ratification deadline passed 222-204. Both measures face a more difficult path in an evenly divided Senate.
The White House announced its support earlier Wednesday for reauthorizing VAWA, which aims to reduce domestic and sexual violence and improve the response to it through a variety of grant programs. Many of the Democratic congresswomen wore all-white outfits to commemorate the day, a nod to the women’s suffrage movement when marchers would wear white dresses to symbolized the femininity and purity of their cause.
President Joe Biden introduced the original Violence Against Women Act in June 1990 when serving as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. A subsequent version was eventually included in a sweeping crime bill that President Bill Clinton would sign into law four years later. Congress has reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act three times since.
Biden applauded the House action and urged the Senate to follow suit. "This should not be a Democratic or Republican issue — it’s about standing up against the abuse of power and preventing violence," the president said in a statement Wednesday evening.
The original bill created the Office on Violence Against Women within the Justice Department, which has awarded more than $9 billion in grants to state and local governments, nonprofits and universities over the years. The grants fund crisis intervention programs, transitional housing and legal assistance to victims, among other programs. Supporters said the reauthorization would also boost spending for training law enforcement and the courts.
“This bill leaves no victim behind," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.
The legislation also would prohibit persons previously convicted of misdemeanor stalking from possessing firearms, a provision that generated opposition from the NRA and resulted in most Republicans voting against the measure in the last Congress.
The other measure the House took up Wednesday would remove the deadline for states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a decades-long effort to amend the Constitution to expressly prohibit discrimination based on sex. Congress initially required the states to ratify it by 1979, a deadline it later extended to 1982.
The Justice Department under President Donald Trump said Congress cannot revive a proposed constitutional amendment after the deadline for its ratification has expired. Supporters would have to start over and follow Article V of the Constitution, which requires support from two-thirds of each chamber of Congress and ratification from three-quarters of the states before an amendment is added to the Constitution.
The fight over the Equal Rights Amendment began almost a century ago. The amendment finally passed with the requisite majority in each chamber when President Richard Nixon was serving his first term.
Shortly after Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the amendment last year, the archivist of the United States declared he would take no action to certify the amendment’s adoption, citing the Justice Department opinion.
Earlier this month, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by three Democratic state attorneys general that had sought to force the federal government to recognize Virginia’s vote.
In a separate statement Wednesday, Biden pointed out that he supported the ERA when he was a young senator, adding, “Nearly 50 years later, it is long past time that we enshrine the principle of gender equality in our Constitution.”
A White House official said Biden remains committed to the ERA, but he won't direct the Office of Legal Counsel to rescind its opinion or to reach a particular conclusion out of respect for the Justice Department's independence. The official said Biden considered the House vote the appropriate next step. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., noted that a champion of the amendment, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had said it was time to start anew.
“This measure is brazenly unconstitutional,” McClintock said. “If the majority were serious, they would reintroduce the ERA and debate it openly and constitutionally as Ginsburg suggests.”
The ERA faced bitter opposition from some conservatives, who say it could be used as a legal tool to fight state efforts to curb abortion.
“If ratified, the ERA would be used to codify the right to abortion, undoing pro-life protections and forcing taxpayers to fund abortions," warned Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz.
Supporters argued that the Constitution does not guarantee that all the rights it protects are held equally by all citizens without regard to sex.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., the sponsor of the resolution to repeal the ratification deadline, said there is no expiration date on equality.
“We demand that we be put into the Constitution," Speier said.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the Constitution places no deadlines on the process of ratifying constitutional amendments and that Congress clearly has the authority to extend or remove any deadlines it chose to set previously.
“We are on the brink of making history and no deadline should stand in the way," Nadler said.