President Joe Biden has signed into law a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill, which funds the federal government through September 30. The president's action on March 15 ends a cycle of short-term continuing spending resolutions that kept the government operating on spending levels approved during Donald Trump's administration.
The enormous package combines twelve appropriations bills covering portions of the federal government, as well as an additional $13.6 billion in aid to Ukraine and several unrelated pieces of legislation. One of those reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act through 2027, a task that had remained unfinished for years. Congress last reauthorized the 1994 legislation addressing violence against women in 2013, and that authorization expired in 2019.
Iowa's Senator Joni Ernst was a key negotiator of the final deal on the Violence Against Women Act and celebrated its passage this week.
HOW THE IOWANS VOTED ON THE SPENDING BILL
Lindsey McPherson reported for Roll Call on how the omnibus bill was divided in the U.S. House to allow members to vote separately March 9 on two parts:
One piece, which lawmakers backed on a 260-171 vote, included the vast majority of the nondefense spending bills, the nondefense-related funding for the Ukraine crisis and most of the unrelated bills leadership attached to the omnibus given it’s must-pass status. That includes reauthorizations of the Violence Against Women Act, the National Flood Insurance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a livestock reporting program and more.
Other measures riding on the spending package include legislation to increase reporting of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, a provision allowing regulation of synthetic nicotine manufacturers, language intended to boost the Federal Trade Commission's ability to crack down on attempts to defraud seniors and various health provisions, like an extension of higher Medicaid reimbursements for U.S. territories.
The other vote included the three appropriations bills progressive Democrats often oppose: Defense, Commerce-Justice-Science and Homeland Security. The second piece also included the defense portions of the Ukraine supplemental, the annual intelligence authorization and a section intended to promote the U.S.-Israel relationship and back regional peace initiatives such as the Abraham Accords brokered by the Trump administration.
U.S. Representative Cindy Axne (IA-03), the lone Democrat in Iowa's Congressional delegation voted for both halves of the spending package. Representatives Ashley Hinson (IA-01, the new IA-02) and Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-02, the new IA-01) were among the 39 Republicans to vote for the portion that included much of the domestic spending and provisions on the Violence Against Women Act, flood insurance, food assistance, livestock reporting, and cybersecurity. Republican Randy Feenstra (IA-04) voted against that part of the package.
All four Iowans in the House voted for the part of the omnibus bill that included Pentagon and Homeland Security spending, intelligence authorization, and the new military aid to Ukraine.
The U.S. Senate approved the omnibus spending bill in a single 68 to 31 vote, with Ernst and Iowa's senior Senator Chuck Grassley both among the eighteen Republicans to vote yes.
LONG ROAD FOR VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN ACT FINALLY ENDS
Since the Violence Against Women Act lapsed, the Democratic-controlled House has voted to reauthorize it in 2019 and in 2021. Axne voted for both of those bills, which each had some Republican support. Miller-Meeks was the only Iowa Republican to support the 2021 bill. To my knowledge, she has never mentioned that vote in a news release or on her social media feeds.
That's probably because last year's bill, like the one the House approved in 2019, contained language the National Rifle Association opposes. The provision would close what is commonly known as the “boyfriend loophole”; if it passed, anyone convicted of stalking or abusing a former partner (even if they never married) would be unable to purchase firearms.
Three years ago, Senate GOP leaders charged Ernst with working on a deal to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. But Iowa's junior senator was unwilling to back the House bill in 2019. She said at the time, "The House bill is a non-starter and is chalk full of partisan political talking points that take us further away from, rather than closer to, a bill we can get over the finish line." The main piece Republicans objected to was closing the boyfriend loophole. No progress ensued during the 2020 election year.
History appeared to be repeating itself in the current Congress, with the House-approved bill from last March going nowhere in the upper chamber. The bill needed at least ten Republican votes to overcome a filibuster.
A breakthrough finally came last month, when senators including Ernst rolled out a bipartisan bill. Jennifer Bendery reported for the Huffington Post that ten Republicans co-sponsored the bill. In addition to reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act through 2027,
It also includes new provisions like expanded access to forensic exams for victims of sexual assault in rural communities; a new grant program to provide community-specific services for LGBTQ survivors of domestic violence; and new jurisdiction to tribal courts to go after non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault, child abuse, stalking, sex trafficking and assaults on tribal law enforcement officers on tribal lands.
The one big missing piece was language closing the "boyfriend loophole." Bendery reported in February,
The gun provision was the biggest sticking point in the Senate, where most Republicans simply refused to support a VAWA bill that included any kind of restrictions on gun access. The National Rifle Association, among other gun rights groups, made it clear they opposed the provision.
Even Murkowski and Ernst tried to keep the gun language in the bill, along with Durbin and Feinstein, according to a Senate Democratic aide. But in the end, they didn’t have the GOP votes to pass the bill with the provision in it.
“It was a really difficult decision,” said this aide, who requested anonymity to speak freely about private conversations. “But it came down to we don’t want this to be a messaging bill. We want this to be a bill that can get to Biden’s desk.”
Staff for Murkowski and Ernst did not respond to Bleeding Heartland's inquiries about whether the senators tried to keep the "boyfriend loophole" language in the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization.
This document prepared by Senate staff explains each section of the bill, which became law when Biden signed the omnibus spending bill March 15.
Ernst and the other senators who led negotiations on this issue hailed the success in floor speeches on March 16. Ernst posted the video of her own remarks on her official Facebook page.
Ernst said she'd been "a proud champion of this bill" for three years and expressed her gratitude for the bipartisan work "to get it over the finish line."
The senator added that the bill is "personal" for her, because she is among the "one out of three women that have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner." One in four men have suffered similar abuse.
Ernst said it had taken a long time for her to speak about being a survivor, and said she hoped some other women would never have to, thanks to the bill. "And those that do will have the necessary support and resources in a moment of crisis to cope with and ultimately overcome their trauma." Among the many "critical resources" the bill contains, Ernst highlighted that it doubles support for rural domestic violence and rape prevention programs, both of which are of "great importance" to Iowa.
Negotiations over this bill were "at times very tough," Ernst acknowledged, fueling doubts about whether the bill would come together. "While the end result isn't perfect, it modernizes the resources necessary to meet the evolving needs of our survivors. This bill is proof that bipartisanship is not dead, and Congress can tackle these tough issues."
Ernst became emotional near the end of the speech.
Finally, for my fellow Americans who can say they are survivors, for those who have not come to terms with their abuse, and for those who feel trapped in their situation, and for those who have lost their battle, please know that you are not, and will never be forgotten. The Violence Against Women Act is for you.
Top image: Screenshot from video of Senator Joni Ernst speaking about the Violence Against Women Act on March 16.