WASHINGTON — Sen. Joni Ernst says she knows firsthand the importance of federally supported programs that help survivors of domestic violence and rape.
“After my sexual assault in college, I had that crisis line that I could call,” the Iowa Republican told reporters this week. “When my husband abused me a decade ago, I had a victim’s advocate at the courthouse.”
Ernst said she couldn’t imagine dealing with her own traumatic experiences without those resources.
So she takes personally the ongoing fight over reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which devotes federal dollars to helping survivors.
That legislation is in doubt after talks between Ernst and her counterpart across the aisle, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., broke down and the two senators released dueling versions of the reauthorization legislation.
Feinstein’s proposal tracks what the House passed earlier this year, which includes several provisions the California senator identified as important: expanding tribal jurisdiction in domestic violence cases, enhancing nondiscrimination policies for the LGBTQ community and closing the so-called boyfriend loophole.
That last one refers to existing law that strips gun rights from those convicted of domestic violence offenses involving spouses, former spouses and other categories. The new proposal would expand those prohibitions to cover stalkers and dating partners.
Feinstein noted that 33 House Republicans supported the measure and that front-line responders helped write the bill.
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“This bill is not a Democratic bill,” Feinstein said on the Senate floor. “It’s not a Republican bill. This bill is a survivors bill.”
But Ernst described the House version as being full of “political talking points.” More specifically, she said her objection to the gun-related language is that it would be retroactive.
“If you were convicted of domestic violence 30 years ago, you could have your gun rights taken away today,” Ernst said. “That doesn’t allow for due process. That doesn’t follow the Constitution. So that was a non-starter.”
Ernst touted other aspects of her bill as superior, saying it has more funding overall and in particular would triple the money available for sexual assault prevention.
It would also address female genital mutilation, formally recognize sex trafficking as sexual assault and help victims of revenge porn, she said.
She also cited the bill’s housing assistance for survivors, saying the Democrats’ approach to housing is too complicated to work.
That housing issue is particularly important in rural areas where shelters are few and far between, she said.
The nearest shelter for someone in her town of Red Oak, for example, is an hour away in Council Bluffs.
“We’re not like big cities — we don’t have shelters around every corner,” Ernst said.
She said she hopes to restart good-faith negotiations with Feinstein and thinks that they were actually shut down by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Ernst, who is up for reelection in 2020, suggested that Schumer doesn’t want to give her any legislative victories this session.
Schumer, meanwhile, accused Ernst of kowtowing to the nation’s largest gun lobby, which opposes expanding the prohibition.
“Sen. Ernst is simply afraid of the NRA,” Schumer said. “Ask Sen. Ernst if she believes that a boyfriend of a woman who has gotten a protection order issued against him should get a gun.”
Ernst later took exception to those comments.
“I do not need to be mansplained by Chuck Schumer,” Ernst said during a conference call with reporters. “I am a survivor. I am not afraid of anyone, folks. I have been through the worst of the worst, and I am here today.”