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With VAWA talks deadlocked, lawmakers push for domestic-violence emergency funds

Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act remains stalled in Congress. But lawmakers and advocates are trying to find ways to help victims of domestic violence who are forced to shelter in place in unsafe homes during a pandemic.

Groups that lobby on domestic-violence policies say they welcomed the money lawmakers provided for certain programs in the third coronavirus package, which passed last week. For the next bill, they are pressing for even more funding to ensure the needs of domestic-violence victims, both during and after the pandemic, can be met.

"Clearly, if we can keep the programs funded, we can keep them going, and that's what we need to do in the short term, and look at the reauthorization in the long term," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the top Democratic appropriator for the Department of Justice, said in an interview Wednesday. "But making sure the programs have the support they need is absolutely critical."

Before the coronavirus outbreak, much of the discussion on Capitol Hill about domestic-violence and sexual-assault services was focused on updating and reauthorizing VAWA. But progress came to a complete standstill in the Senate. Now, instead of focusing on long-term policy changes, lawmakers are trying to ensure there is enough cash flow to domestic-violence services to help victims during the outbreak.

"We have to immediately get funding out for the immediate problems," Sen. Amy Klobuchar told reporters on Monday. "This is clearly going to be a major priority of myself, as well as Senator [Lisa] Murkowski, and many others."

Domestic-violence services are staying open, said Monica McLaughlin, director of public policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Maryland's stay-at-home order, for example, does not apply to people "whose homes or residences have become unsafe." Minnesota's recent order also includes an exemption for domestic-violence victims.

"Survivors of violence are trapped in their homes most of the time, controlled by an abuser," McLaughlin said. "Imagine, when the state says you also have to be, right? And the trauma, the level of trauma that means for both the abused and protective parent and the children."

Advocates were able to get new funding in the Cares Act, the $2.2 trillion coronavirus-relief package signed into law last week. Appropriators signed off on $45 million in new funding for Family Violence Prevention and Services Act grants to states to provide shelter, safety planning, and crisis counseling, among other services. An additional $2 million went toward the National Domestic Violence Hotline with an emphasis on making sure its operators can work remotely.

The law also banned for the next four months evictions or late-rent fees of those in housing made available under VAWA.

Democrats had pushed for more funding for these programs, but they say they were blocked by the Republicans in talks over the emergency legislation.

"[T]here's a huge swath of survivors who were left out in the cold when the Senate gutted the House-proposed funding for sexual assault survivors and slashed the funds for domestic violence services," said Rep. Jackie Speier, cochair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus, in a statement on Wednesday. She said she is leading a letter to press House leadership for more funding for domestic-violence and rape-crisis centers in the next coronavirus bill.

McLaughlin said she is expecting an increase in need for domestic-violence services after the outbreak has passed. "I think once the public-health crisis lifts, there’s a sense of, 'OK, maybe I can get out now, and I’m going to do that now,’" she said. "That will be a surge, we think, of requests and demands on the service providers to be responding to this influx of folks who will, post-health crisis, need support."

Advocates want to see more funding for the domestic-violence grants under FVPSA, which was first passed in the 1980s and was reauthorized seven times before expiring in 2015. It is considered the primary source of funding to support shelter and services for victims of domestic violence.

Advocacy groups and House Democrats initially pressed for $100 million for FVPSA services in the third coronavirus package.

"We really appreciate the increase in FVPSA, but it’s not enough; it’s not nearly enough to meet the increased need," said Rachel Graber, director of public policy at the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Klobuchar said she is already working with Murkowski, a senior Republican appropriator, on further funding options for victims of domestic violence.

A spokesperson for Murkowski declined to confirm details about conversations the senator "may have had with her colleagues."

"I can, however, stress that ensuring victims of domestic violence have the support they need is a priority of Senator Murkowski’s," said Karina Borger, Murkowski’s communications director. "She has stated that addressing this issue must be a focus in the next phase of relief passed by Congress."

While VAWA technically expired in late 2018, appropriators are still providing funding to programs under the law. The House passed its reauthorization bill a year ago this month, but it has stalled in the Senate in part over Second Amendment concerns regarding a provision that would prohibit those convicted of dating violence from possessing firearms.

"There's just no reason to stop this bill right now," Klobuchar said. "It should be one that goes through unanimously or, you know, if there's some Republicans that want to vote against it, you work out a procedure ... to allow them to give their speeches and then pass it. … But this thing waited way too long. And now we're going to see more than ever why we need it in place."

Senators are determined not to let the political difficulties of VAWA’s reauthorization interfere with immediate financial support. A spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the lead sponsor in her chamber of the House-approved VAWA reauthorization, said she still supports her bill "but is focused on ensuring that victims and survivors of domestic violence get the resources they need during this crisis."

A spokesperson for Sen. Joni Ernst, the lead Republican on talks for VAWA reauthorization, told National Journal the Iowan "continues to work with Senator Feinstein on bipartisan solutions to reauthorize VAWA" and that, "as a survivor of domestic violence," she supported the Cares Act funding for domestic-violence shelters and coalitions.

Senators have also begun lobbying the administration to remain vigilant. Klobuchar, Murkowski, and 22 members of the Democratic caucus last week urged officials at the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services to ensure their relevant agencies provide "flexibility, resources, and information" to organizations helping victims and survivors of domestic violence. They also requested a briefing by phone with administration staff on federal domestic-violence programs’ efforts.

Feinstein in her own letter late last month asked DOJ’s Office of Violence Against Women for information on how it is "addressing the needs of this vulnerable population" during the pandemic.

Advocates told National Journal they are not currently focusing on reauthorizing VAWA. "I don’t think probably at this point there is enough agreement on what that final VAWA bill will look like," Graber said.

In the short term, they want to see multiple funding streams beefed up, like VAWA’s sexual-assault-services program. "Rape-crisis centers are transitioning to remote services," Graber said. "They have seen and are expecting to see increases in sexual assault during this time, which means increases in need."

Several House members pressed for $100 million to be included in the third coronavirus package for this program in a March 23 letter sent to House leaders. The members also pushed for $100 million for FVPSA, $40 million for VAWA transitional housing, and $20 million toward VAWA’s grants for culturally specific services and outreach for underserved populations. These requests were either not included or funded only in part in the third coronavirus package.

"Domestic violence and abusive relationships don’t just stop because of the coronavirus, and stay home orders make home a scary and dangerous place for many," said Rep. Debbie Dingell in a statement to National Journal on Wednesday. "We fought hard for $300 million for VAWA programs in the third coronavirus relief package, and while it wasn’t included in the final deal our fight continues to ensure this gets signed into law in the next package."