At first glance it seemed as though Republican Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri had broken with the majority of her fellow conservatives in the House of Representatives last week to renew an expanded version of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which funds programs to assist survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse.
A statement from her office proclaimed: "Hartzler votes to protect women from acts of violence."
“Violence against women, in all its forms, is unacceptable,” Hartzler said in the statement.
But Hartzler, who was elected with strong tea party support, had voted for a Republican amendment to the bill, which failed 166-257, and against the version that’s headed for the president’s desk to be signed into law.
That bill, which originated in the Senate, passed the House 286-138 on Feb. 28 with the support of 87 Republicans and 199 Democrats. President Barack Obama is scheduled to sign it Thursday.
A spokesman for Hartzler said there wasn’t any intention to deceive, but the episode highlights the difficult line that some politicians walk when voting their principles means taking an unpopular stance.
The Violence Against Women Act authorizes $659 million in funding over five years to prosecute crimes of sexual assault and domestic abuse and to provide survivors with legal aid, temporary housing and other assistance. Democrats had accused Republicans of stalling the legislation for almost a year.
Democrats also criticized the GOP for introducing its own amendment that would have removed new protections for gay, lesbian and transgender victims of abuse and would have altered a provision that allowed Native American tribal courts to prosecute non-native men accused of abusing native women on reservations.
Republicans argued that the language on same-sex couples was unnecessary and warned that forcing non-native men into tribal courts might be unconstitutional. They complained that Democrats had politicized the bill to reinforce the idea that conservatives are waging a so-called “war on women.”
Republicans are looking to improve their brand with women after losing the female vote in the 2012 presidential election, 55 percent to 44 percent. Gay, lesbian and transgendered voters supported Obama by an even larger margin, 76 percent to 22 percent.
For Hartzler and other Republicans, voting for the House amendment allowed them to declare their support for women while still voting to reject the Senate bill that ultimately passed.
Although Hartzler’s statement notes that she voted for a “House bill,” it doesn’t clarify that the GOP amendment she supported had been defeated, nor does the statement mention that she’d voted against the bipartisan Senate bill.
Another Republican representative from Missouri, Ann Wagner, sent a similarly confusing statement after she, too, voted for the House amendment and against the Senate bill.
“Today I was pleased to stand up for all women who are victims of violence and abuse,” Wagner said. “As a result, I voted for the strongest bill that would protect all women from acts of violence and help law enforcement prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law. I am committed to protecting all women from domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.”
Her statement, like Hartzler’s, didn’t mention voting against the Senate bill, which had a wider reach than the Republican version did.
Hartzler spokesman Steve Walsh said the congresswoman’s statement wasn’t intended to be misleading. Given the fact that there were two pieces of legislation under consideration with the same name, some confusion is understandable, Walsh said. But Hartzler’s sympathy for women who’ve been abused or attacked isn’t in question, he said.
“For anyone to suggest that she is opposed to addressing the issue of violence against women would be completely incorrect,” Walsh said. “She’s a woman herself, and she certainly cares deeply for women who have been abused, whether it’s sexual or domestic abuse. . . . She is happy that there will be benefits going to victims of abuse under the version that passed, but at the end of the day, she feels that the House version afforded victims of abuse better protections.”
The congresswoman objected to what she thought was a lack of financial accountability in the Senate bill, Walsh said. The Republicans’ House amendment would have limited expenditures for salaries and administrative costs to 5 percent of total funding and prohibited grantees from using federal money to lobby for more funding, he said.
“She believes that whatever funding is available, as much funds as possible should be going to victims of sexual trafficking and other abuse, rather than Washington bureaucrats,” Walsh said.
Some Republicans did vote for the Senate version of the bill, which passed, including Reps. Kevin Yoder and Lynn Jenkins of Kansas. Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran also voted for it, after opposing it last year.
“After visiting domestic violence shelters and speaking with numerous advocates, their message was clear: Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Moran said, when asked to explain his change of heart.
Jenkins said she wasn’t proud of how long it took to reauthorize the bill.
“We could have done this last year, but instead of working together, the women this bill seeks to protect were used as a wedge for partisan, election-year politics,” she said in a statement. “The simple fact is both parties are to blame for the delay. Democrats wanted a hammer to beat over the heads of Republicans, and far too many misguided Republicans provided them with that hammer.”