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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Playing Politics with Violence Against Women

An ad from Alison Lundergan Grimes knocks Sen. Mitch McConnell for voting “two times against the Violence Against Women Act” — evidence, Grimes concludes, that McConnell has forgotten that “over half the voters in Kentucky are women.”

But McConnell has never opposed the central purpose of the Violence Against Women Act. In fact, he was a cosponsor of the original bill in 1991, and he has twice supported its reauthorization.

McConnell did vote against a massive crime bill that included the VAWA because it also contained a ban on assault weapons. And he more recently voted against reauthorization of VAWA in 2012 and 2013 because he opposed Democratic expansions of the bill that included provisions for same-sex couples and immigrants, and one that would have allowed Native American tribal courts to try non-Native Americans accused of domestic violence on reservations. In both cases, McConnell supported Republican alternatives to those bills that he claimed would have strengthened the Violence Against Women Act.

Throughout her campaign, Grimes has highlighted women’s issues, and her campaign website says that the contrast between her and McConnell on that front “could not be starker.” Drawing that contrast is the aim of this latest ad, the third in a series that features a Kentucky resident sitting beside Grimes and posing a rhetorical question to McConnell. We previously reviewed the first two installments, one on Medicare, the other on jobs.

This latest ad features Ilene Woods from Lynch, Kentucky, asking, “Senator, why did you vote two times against the Violence Against Women Act and against enforcing equal pay for women?”

After a pause, Grimes says, “I can never get him to answer this one either. I approve this message because, Senator, you must be forgetting that over half the voters in Kentucky are women, like Ilene.”

The ad’s claim that McConnell voted “against enforcing equal pay for women” relates to votes on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009 and the Paycheck Fairness Act in 2012. We’ll get to those, but first we’ll deal with the ad’s main claim about VAWA, a law that seeks to combat crimes and violence against women. McConnell has a complicated history with the law — too complex to summarize in one sound bite in a 30-second ad.

McConnell’s History on VAWA

Back in 1991, McConnell was one of the original cosponsors of the first Violence Against Women Act, which was introduced by then-Sen. Joe Biden. The bill sought to address a comprehensive spectrum of domestic violence issues. According to the Congressional Research Service, it “encourages collaboration among law enforcement, judicial personnel, and public and private service providers to victims of domestic and sexual violence; increases public awareness of domestic violence; addresses the special needs of victims of domestic and sexual violence; … authorizes long-term and transitional housing for victims; … and requires studies and reports on the effectiveness of approaches used for certain grants in combating violence.”

That first bill never progressed to a vote. Biden reintroduced it again in 1993, although McConnell was no longer a cosponsor. The bill was never brought to an independent vote, but that year VAWA was incorporated into the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a massive crime bill that sought to fund 100,000 new police officers and included significant investments in prisons and crime prevention programs. Also championed by Biden, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act — including VAWA — passed the Senate in 1993 by a wide margin, 95-4, and McConnell was among those who supported it.

However, when the law came back to the Senate via a final conference report, it included several new provisions, including an assault weapons ban, which McConnell opposed. That bill passed the Senate 61-38, largely along partisan lines. McConnell was among the majority of Republicans who opposed it. The bill was later signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Nonetheless, this version of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was not a clean up-or-down vote on VAWA.

VAWA was reauthorized and enhanced in 2000 when it was added to the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which passed the Senate unanimously. VAWA was again reauthorized and enhanced by unanimous consent in 2005. So McConnell can be said to have twice supported reauthorization of VAWA, in 2000 and 2005.

And that brings us to 2012, when VAWA reauthorization became a bit of an election-year political football.

Democrats that year added provisions to VAWA reauthorization that Republicans generally opposed, such as extending protections to same-sex couples. Republicans also opposed an expansion of the number of temporary visas for immigrants in the country illegally who claim they are victims of domestic violence. And some Republicans also expressed concern about provisions dealing with new protections for Native Americans, arguing the provisions would allow tribal courts to try non-Native Americans accused of domestic violence on reservations.

In an interview with Politico prior to the vote, McConnell accused the Democrats of politicizing an issue that otherwise enjoyed bipartisan support.

“We’re all in favor of the Violence Against Women Act – as you know, it was passed on a voice vote when we were in the majority here [in 2005],” McConnell said. “Any fight here would be completely manufactured on their part — there’s nothing to fight about.”

McConnell supported a substitute VAWA bill proposed by Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, which stripped out some of the “problematic provisions” of the Democratic version, and sought to strengthen VAWA by, for example, toughening criminal penalties. But that bill failed.

The Democratic-controlled Senate passed the Democratic version of the bill by a vote of 68-31 on April 26, 2012 — with McConnell voting against it — but the effort died in the Republican-controlled House.

The issue of VAWA reauthorization reemerged in 2013. As he had the year before, McConnell supported a Republican substitute bill proposed by Sen. Chuck Grassley. The Grassley version would have kept funding levels the same, but would have increased the mandatory minimum sentences for aggravated sexual assault, and it called for a federal magistrate to oversee domestic violence cases in Native American territories. The Grassley plan, however, was rejected by a vote of 34-65.

The Democratic version of VAWA reauthorization passed 78-22, with 23 Republicans voting in favor of it (and McConnell voting against it). It was ultimately signed into law by President Obama .

In early July, McConnell contended that he is a longtime supporter of VAWA, but that he simply supported a different version than the one passed by the Senate.

“Actually I voted for a much stronger version of the Violence Against Women Act [the Grassley bill] than the one that ended up passing the Senate,” McConnell said. “So I’d be happy to have that debate with my opponent or anyone else because I voted for a much stronger provision.”

So it’s true that McConnell twice voted against reauthorization of VAWA — including a 2013 version that received healthy Republican support in the Senate — but in both cases, McConnell supported an alternative, Republican version of VAWA.

 Equal Pay for Women

As for the ad’s claim that McConnell voted “against enforcing equal pay for women,” the ad references two votes by McConnell, one against the Paycheck Fairness Act in 2012 and another against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. But whether those were votes “against enforcing equal pay for women” is a matter of political debate.

The Paycheck Fairness Act sought to bridge pay disparities between men and women and included provisions that prohibited companies from barring employees from talking with co-workers about their pay; required businesses to give a reason for disparities in pay; and allowed women to sue employers for punitive damages if they were paid unfairly.

Republicans uniformly opposed the bill, arguing that the law already prohibits unequal pay based on gender, and warning the bill would simply increase civil lawsuits.

”We don’t think America suffers from a lack of litigation,” McConnell said in a press conference after the vote.

Republicans successfully blocked the bill from moving forward to a vote on June 5, 2012. In fact, Republicans have blocked similar bills several times, most recently in April. McConnell contended the bill is “just another Democrat idea that threatens to hurt the very people it claims to help.”

The other bill referenced in the Grimes ad is the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which expanded women’s ability to sue in pay discrimination cases. Prior to the Lilly Ledbetter law, federal courts held that the statute of limitations for a gender discrimination lawsuit ended 180 days after the first instance of discrimination. The law extended that to 180 days after the last instance of discrimination, essentially a person’s last paycheck at a company.

In a press release explaining his opposition, McConnell said he supports equal pay for equal work, but believed the bill would unfairly hurt businesses by “eliminating the statute of limitations on pay discrimination” cases. McConnell supported a failed amendment from Hutchison that would have started the 180-day statute of limitation clock from “the date when the person aggrieved has, or should be expected to have, enough information to support a reasonable suspicion of such discrimination.”

Despite McConnell’s opposition, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passed the Senate 61-36, and President Obama later signed it into law, his first as president.

We don’t take a position on whether the two votes highlighted in the Grimes ad were votes “against enforcing equal pay for women.” We provided McConnell’s fuller position to show this is a matter of debate, and we’ll leave that up to readers to decide.

— Robert Farley