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Congress lets Violence Against Women Act wither away

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor voted against his own party's leadership Tuesday night on the fiscal cliff Senate bill, and lost.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor voted against his own party's leadership Tuesday night on the fiscal cliff Senate bill, and lost. According to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Cantor was working "as hard as he could" to get a vote on Hurricane Sandy relief--he lost that, too.

But Cantor won something else Tuesday night: he managed to effectively kill the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and send advocates for its reauthorization back to the drawing board.

Among the many items up for consideration at the conclusion of the 112th Congress was the Senate bill reauthorizing VAWA, which was originally passed in 1994. The Senate version had newly added tribal protections for American Indian women, granting tribes limited authority to prosecute sexual-assault crimes on their lands--whether the crimes are committed by American Indians or not. Cantor stood in the way of the Senate bill, offering instead the version the House passed, which excluded the new American Indian protections, along with those for undocumented immigrants as well as lesbian and trans women.

Though his actions indicated that he was against giving every woman in America the same legal protections against violent perpetrators, Cantor never articulated in public exactly why he was doing this.

But speaking to Melissa Harris-Perry in December, National Organization for Women President Terry O'Neill said the fight was "draining the resources of the advocacy groups that have been working on re-authorization for two solid years. Many of the advocacy groups also provide services; their resources are being drained. I don’t think that’s a mistake.”

The chief Democratic advocate for the VAWA reauthorization, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, released a statement that was reported in Jezebel:

"The House Republican leadership's failure to take up and pass the Senate's bipartisan and inclusive VAWA bill is inexcusable. This is a bill that passed with 68 votes in the Senate and that extends the bill's protections to 30 million more women. But this seems to be how House Republican leadership operates. No matter how broad the bipartisan support, no matter who gets hurt in the process, the politics of the right wing of their party always comes first."

Given that Cantor raised a fuss Tuesday about a fiscal-cliff bill that had 89 bipartisan Senate votes, perhaps it's unsurprising to see the VAWA left by the wayside. And given that Cantor's fellow Republicans were content to shrug off hurricane survivors in the Northeast--not exactly a GOP hotbed--how shocking is it to see them insult women, who (as my colleague Steve Benen noted) went for Democrats by 12 points in November? Maybe it's as O'Neill said, a desire to exhaust advocacy groups and their resources.

Why was Cantor so steadfast in his desire to block protections for American Indian, undocumented, lesbian, and trans women? All we do know is that while Republicans made compromises to avoid a so-called fiscal cliff, they were unwilling to do so in order to avoid dropping legal protections for women that have stood for nearly 20 years. Shouldn't that require some explanation?

Calls to Cantor's office Wednesday were greeted by a voicemail explaining that they are currently closed and will re-open last Wednesday, December 26. (No, they haven't updated the message.) All of their voicemail boxes were full. Like Sisyphus pushing the boulder, we'll keep trying. If we ever get them to explain exactly why this was such a priority, you'll be the first to know.