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Bennett Brinkman
Gaylord News

WASHINGTON — The House used the Women’s History Month to serve as the backdrop for passing legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act and to remove the 1982 deadline for states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

House Democratic women dressed in suffragette white to commemorate the occasion and to usher through what they say are landmark pieces of legislation to advance women's rights.

The House voted 244-172 on Wednesday to pass the legislation, with 29 Republicans, including Oklahoma GOP House members Stephanie Bice, Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin, joining Democrats in support of the bill.

“While there are many misguided provisions that do not belong in the reauthorization legislation passed by the House, I am very supportive of the areas concerning Native American tribes and their ability to combat and end violence against women and children in their own communities,” said Cole, who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation, in a press release.

Part of the new legislation in the reauthorization bill will expand protections for Native American, immigrant and transgender women.

“With passage of HR 1620, the House has recognized that Native victims of sexual violence, child abuse, stalking, and trafficking deserve the same protections that Congress afforded to domestic violence victims in VAWA 2013,” said Traditional Councilwoman Juana Majel Dixon, Co-Chair of the National Congress of American Indians Task Force on Violence Against Women.

“This is about our right, as governments, to protect our citizens from violence,” she said.

The reauthorization comes six months after the signing of two laws designed to improve coordination between law enforcement agencies while developing a plan to combat the rising tide of missing, murdered and kidnapped Native Americans, something that has not happened before. More importantly it brings Indigeous people into the process.

The Violence Against Women Act was last reauthorized by Congress in 2013 and was originally passed in 1994. Then-Senator Joe Biden authored the original bill.

The act provides funding and protection to help women suffering from domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.

The White House released a statement Wednesday applauding the House’s passage of the bill.

“Writing and passing VAWA is one of the legislative accomplishments of which I’m most proud,” said Biden in the statement. “VAWA has transformed the way our country responds to violence against women. And, with each re-authorization, the Congress has expanded VAWA’s provisions on a bipartisan basis to improve protections, including for Native American women and survivors from underserved communities, and improve efforts to prevent intimate partner violence.”

Oklahoma’s other two House members, Kevin Hern and Frank Lucas, joined the other 172 Republicans in voting against the bill.

“Unfortunately, the bill that we voted on yesterday included numerous partisan poison pills that have nothing to do with the goal of protecting women from domestic violence,” Hern said in a statement.

New provisions in the bill include closing the “boyfriend loop,” meaning all dating partners convicted of domestic violence will be prohibited from owning guns, rather than just spouses, parents, legal guardians or partners who live together. This, along with another provision barring those convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse or stalking, prompted the National Rifle Association to oppose the bill when it was introduced in the last session of Congress.

Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the NRA, told the New York Times in 2019 that for “many of those ‘offenses’ — and I’m using air quotes here — the behavior that would qualify as a stalking offense is often not violent or threatening; it involves no personal contact whatsoever.” She argued that the provision is “too broad and ripe for abuse.”

The House also voted Wednesday to remove the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, an amendment to the Constitution proposed in 1972. The original bill required three-fourths of states to ratify the ERA by 1979, later changed to 1982, before it could be added to the Constitution. Only 35 of the 38 states needed ratified it by the deadline.

The ERA would ban sex-based discrimination and strengthen legal equality for women in the Constitution.

All five of Oklahoma’s House members voted against the removal of the deadline. At a House Rules Committee hearing Tuesday, Cole said the bill is unconstitutional.

“But now, 42 years after the deadline has passed, the majority is trying to turn back the clock and claim that there should be no deadline at all for ratification of the amendment,” Cole said.

Both bills will now go to the other side of the Capitol, where they could face significant obstacles in the evenly-divided Senate.

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Gaylord News is a Washington-based reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.