Alaska’s senators want Congress to renew the Violence Against Women Act, but bill has become partisan football

The East Plaza of the U.S. Capitol. Photo: Liz Ruskin.

Domestic violence isn’t a Republican problem or Democratic problem, but passing a bill combat the epidemic has become a partisan battlefield in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Dan Sullivan says reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act is especially important for Alaska.

“My state, unfortunately, has the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault of any state in America,” he said on the Senate floor. “It is horrendous. The numbers. The victims. The carnage that this leaves.”

The law, known by the acronym VAWA, is an array of programs and policies that Congress first passed in 1994 and has renewed about every five years. The law supports victim services, beefs up law enforcement and empowers tribal courts. The most recent version has expired. The programs it created remain in place, but neither party likes the message it sends that Congress can’t even agree to alleviate violence.

The Democratic-led House passed a VAWA renewal bill in April. It closes the “boyfriend loophole,” with a restriction on gun purchases for convicted stalkers and domestic abusers.  

That doesn’t fly with many Senate Republicans. They introduced their bill this week, with no Democratic support. Sen. Joni Ernst, R- Iowa, says it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

“We thought that we were coming together on a bipartisan bill,” she told reporters Tuesday. “Unfortunately, the Senate Democrats decided to turn their back and walk away.”

Ernst, like Sullivan, is a first-term senator who will be on the ballot in 2020. She’s considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans. She claims Democrats are playing politics on VAWA to make her look bad.

Not so, says Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

“Sen. Ernst is simply afraid of the NRA,” Schumer said.

He says Ernst should push to bring the House bill to the Senate floor.

“And we’ll debate it,” Schumer said. “And we can debate her amendment, which the gun lobby wants, but almost no other American wants.”

Sen. Sullivan is a co-sponsor of Ernst’s bill. In its 243 pages is a section he wrote that would nationalize elements of Alaska’s “Choose Respect” initiative, which he worked on when he was the state’s attorney general.  The section would, among other things:

•designate October 1 as national “Choose Respect” day

•create a media campaign aimed at preventing domestic violence.

•expand a legal assistance program for victims

•require a study to consider serving restraining orders by email, text or even social media 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she wants to see VAWA pass, including a strong tribal powers provision.

“There is nothing, there is nothing partisan about making sure that Native women are protected,” she said at the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, just before the panel voted to advance a separate bill, Savanna’s Act, to address the high rates of Native American women that are murdered or go missing.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have introduced a VAWA bill that’s similar to the version the House passed.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at

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