WASHINGTON — Senate Democratic leaders are setting up a fight with Republicans over reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in what is becoming an election-year strategy to brand Republicans as anti-woman.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, wants to bring the legislation to the floor for consideration before the end of the month, his spokesman, Adam Jentleson, said Thursday. Democrats are seeking to capitalize on gains they say they made this month with women and with independent voters when they thwarted Senate Republicans’ effort to let employers and insurers deny coverage for birth control and other health services that violate their religious beliefs.
“When Republicans let the hard right run the show, they lose out,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Wednesday. He said Missouri Republican Roy Blunt’s birth control proposal had “no appeal in the middle, particularly with independent women,” and was “self- defeating.”
Democrats are seeking to reauthorize the 1994 law providing services, including transitional housing and legal assistance, to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. The law expired Sept. 30, 2011.
Republicans say Democrats are conflating unrelated issues in an attempt to turn female voters against Republicans and distract from the lack of a Democratic strategy for improving the economy.
“It has politics written all over it,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the Republican leadership, said Wednesday in an interview. “Most women, particularly independent women, want to see us talking about economic issues.”
The eight Republicans — all men — on the Judiciary Committee opposed the measure when it was considered by the panel last month. Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement that it was the first time legislation reauthorizing the law had been reported by the committee on a party-line vote.
Female senators took to the Senate floor Thursday to call attention to dangers to women caused by domestic violence and to urge reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., described the law as “a landmark bill” that “started a sea change in attitudes about violence against women.”
“It is part of the effort to woo women voters and to get them in their camp,” Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report, said Thursday. She said women make up a majority of the electorate and may be a “pivotal” voting bloc in November.
The Violence Against Women Act, which has been reauthorized twice, has 58 co-sponsors, including Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who is expecting a tough re-election fight against the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Elizabeth Warren. Three Republican women — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine — also signed on to the measure. Murkowski was among the women speaking in the bill’s favor on the Senate floor Thursday.
Democrats tried to cast the birth control flap as Republican attack on women’s health, while Republicans worked to frame the debate as a religious freedom issue.
A Bloomberg National Poll taken March 8-11 showed that Americans overwhelmingly regard the debate over President Barack Obama’s policy on employer-provided contraceptive coverage as a matter of women’s health, not religious freedom, rejecting Republicans’ rationale for opposing the rule. More than six in 10 respondents — including almost 70 percent of women — said the issue involves health care and access to birth control.
Snowe was the only Republican to vote against Blunt’s birth control amendment. Murkowski was quoted by the Anchorage Daily News as saying she “made a mistake” in supporting the birth control proposal.
Democratic leaders’ emphasis on women shows they are “worried about Senate Democrats and keeping their majority,” said Duffy, who focuses on U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races.
Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who is up for re-election this year, said she’d heard concerns from women of all political affiliations about Republican opposition to policies that benefit women like the Violence Against Women Act.
“It just sends another very bad signal to women in this country about where Republicans are in terms of understanding the lives of women,” Stabenow said.
Senate Democrats are defending 23 seats in November, compared with 10 for Republicans.
“If they can fire up Democratic women voters, that helps them,” Duffy said.