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McCaskill rips House GOP leaders on Violence Against Women Act

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 12, 2012 - WASHINGTON – House Republican leaders "should be ashamed of themselves" for blocking action on a Senate-passed expansion of the Violence Against Women Act, Sen. Claire McCaskill said Wednesday.

Noting that all 17 women senators voted for the bipartisan bill, McCaskill said at a forum that GOP women in the House "should be the ones that are showing the country right now that they can force the leadership of their own party to do what’s right for women, who are really in jeopardy every single day if nothing is done."

McCaskills comments on VAWA came during a discussion at the Center for American Progress about whether the importance of women voters in this year's elections will translate into greater influence on the national policy agenda.  The1994 law aimed at ending violence against women. It was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005 but expired last year.

The Senate passed the act's reauthorization in April by a 68-31 vote, expanding the law to cover new protections for Americans Indians, lesbians and gay people and undocumented immigrants. In May, the House barely approved, 225-205, a watered-down reauthorization that the American Bar Association opposed as "a retreat in the battle against domestic and sexual violence."

Despite appeals this week from a group of House members that included 10 Republicans for a vote on an expanded VAWA, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have refused so far to allow a vote on the Senate's additions, which they regard as politically driven.

"I am as worried about VAWA as I am about the fiscal cliff stuff," McCaskill said. "It's apples and oranges — they are not the same. But if we really fail to get this done, I'll start next year determined, but slightly depressed, that we have so much more work to do than we should have to do at this point."

Women exerted unparalleled influence at the polls

At the forum, McCaskill joined U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., and President Barack Obama's former deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, in discussing the importance of women’s votes in the November elections — and whether that vote would carry over into greater influence in Washington.

Obama won the female vote over GOP opponent Mitt Romney by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent — the widest "gender gap" in a presidential race that Gallup has recorded. When only single women are counted, Obama won by a margin of 36 percentage points.

McCaskill, whose 14-point victory over GOP challenger U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, was buoyed by an even higher edge among women, agreed with other panelists that “extreme” positions taken by some Republican candidates on issues such as birth control had energized many women to vote for Democrats.

The panel's moderator, PBS senior correspondent Judy Woodruff, said the McCaskill-Akin race "probably got more attention than any other [congressional] race in the country," in part because of Akin's "legitimate rape" comment and his stance on other social issues. 

"We thought we'd won this battle ... about women's access to birth control," McCaskill said. "When that topic came back up again, I think it galvanized women in a way that I haven't seen before in 30 years I’ve been running for office."

Moore, the co-chair of the congressional women’s caucus, said that the positions on reproductive rights were of concern, but many women had cared more about the GOP’s proposals to cut back on programs such as health care, food stamps and student loans — all of which have a bigger impact on women than men.

Both McCaskill and Cutter cautioned that analysts should not oversimplify the diversity of women’s opinions.

"Women have widely different opinions on many subjects," McCaskill said. But the two agreed that many women were concerned that Romney and other Republican candidates seemed to be out of touch on some issues.

"Do they understand what I'm going through?" was a big question for many women, Cutter said. Asked to interpret the message of women who voted this year, McCaskill said: "I think they expect us to keep their economic realities in the forefront of our consideration, as we make very difficult decisions around our fiscal imbalances."

During Congress' deliberations on avoiding the fiscal cliff and reducing federal deficits, McCaskill said, women "expect us to protect things like health care and Pell Grants and student loans" that impact economic security "and their ability to care for their families."    

Record number of women in the U.S. Senate

With the hope that women would exert more influence on Capitol Hill, panelists pointed out that the newly-elected U.S. Senate will have a record number of women — 20 — when it convenes in January.

When ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer this week gathered 19 of the 20 women who will serve in the Senate in the new Congress to discuss the growing importance of women, McCaskill and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said women tend to be less confrontational than their male counterparts and, in some cases, might be more willing to compromise.

"I think if we were in charge of the Senate and of the administration that we would have a budget deal by now," said Collins, to general agreement. "What I find, with all due deference to our male colleagues, is that women’s styles tend to be more collaborative."

Said McCaskill: "I think by nature we are less confrontational and more collaborative. All of us not only want to work in a bipartisan way, we do it."

At the Center for American Progress forum, panelists agreed that women should try to extend their influence well beyond this fall’s election and try to change more policies at the state level, where GOP governors and legislatures are in control of many states. In Missouri, McCaskill pointed out, Republicans have a veto-proof majority in both houses of the Legislature.

Noting that many women had devoted a great deal of energy into this year’s presidential campaign, McCaskill said: "If you would put that much energy into a single state representative race, you could change that."

When an audience member asked how she could influence conservative state officials in her home state of Virginia, McCaskill advised her to try to meet with the public official, send letters and emails, and perhaps even seek office. “I would say, leave here motivated. Take one of them out,” said McCaskill

When the audience burst into laughter, McCaskill clarified that “we don’t mean that literally" — only electorally.