New York Sen. Chuck Schumer believes he has found a political weapon in the unlikeliest of places: the Violence Against Women Act.
Republicans have several objections to the legislation, but instead of making changes, Schumer wants to fast track the bill to the floor, let the GOP block it, then allow Democrats to accuse Republicans of waging a “war against women.”
It’s fodder for a campaign ad, and it’s not the only potential 30-second spot ready to spring from Senate leadership these days.
From his perch as the Democrats’ chief policy and messaging guru, Schumer wants to raise taxes on people who earn more than $1 million, and many Democrats want to push the vote for April 15, a move designed to amp up the “income inequality” rhetoric just in time for Tax Day.
Schumer has a plan for painting Republicans as anti-immigrant as well. He’s called the author of the Arizona immigration law to testify before his Judiciary subcommittee, bringing Capitol Hill attention to an issue that’s still front and center for Hispanic voters.
None of these campaign-style attacks allow for the policy nuances or reasoning behind the GOP’s opposition, and some of the bills stand no chance of becoming law.
But that’s not really the point.
The real push behind this effort is to give Democrats reasons to portray Republicans as anti-women, anti-Latino and anti-middle class. In the aftermath of a fight over a payroll tax cut for American workers and an Obama contraception policy, Democrats are ready for this next set of wedge issues.
“If a party chooses to alienate the fastest-growing group of people in the country [Latinos] and the majority of people in the country, women, they do so at their peril,” Schumer said Wednesday. “This is an important issue.”
The move carries some risk. The economy is still struggling, with the jobless rate above 8 percent and millions seeking work. Gas prices are skyrocketing. And Schumer himself said last Sunday that Democrats would focus like a “laser” on the economy, a comment Republicans giddily pointed out as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pushed for judicial confirmations this week.
Schumer and Reid have also shown little interest in bringing forward a budget resolution this spring, saying that overall spending levels have already been agreed upon. That has opened them up to Republican charges they are steadfastly avoiding tough votes on the budget in favor of election-year point scoring.
Republicans see the latest chatter in the Senate as a political ploy by Democratic leaders to steady the ship in the face of a shaky political landscape.
“Sounds like all politics all the time,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of his party’s leadership who also serves on the Judiciary Committee. He added that Republicans would point out the “cynical nature of what they’re trying to do that it’s not based on substance.”
Cornyn added: “We’ll be prepared to address their false narrative.”
The political strategy also risks inflaming partisan tensions. Arizona Republican Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain criticized Schumer for calling for a hearing on their state’s tough law that gives law enforcement new powers to target prospective illegal immigrants, a subject of a Supreme Court challenge.
Both men said they had no idea Schumer was inviting former state Sen. Russell Pearce — the author of the law — to testify at a hearing next month.
“Generally, senatorial courtesy indicates you talk to the member states,” McCain said Wednesday. “I have never seen Sen. Schumer do anything unless it had a political agenda.”
Schumer’s office rejects the contention, saying that the New York Democrat notified Cornyn, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, weeks before the offer was made public.
“This is a sunlight hearing,” Schumer said Wednesday. “The more the public hears some of these views from the people in Arizona, the more they’ll ask for a more moderate position.”
Still, Schumer said there are moments of bipartisanship in which the two sides can come together, and he rejects the notion that Democrats are skirting efforts to prop up the economy, pointing to the passage of a highway bill Wednesday and expected approval of a House-passed small-business bill. Schumer said on the floor Wednesday that he hoped it was a “moment of greater comity.”
But it may not last longer than a few days.
As soon as next week, the Senate may begin debating a bill to update expired provisions in the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which provides assistance to victims of domestic abuse and other crimes. The bill, offered by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), was approved last month in his panel on a party-line vote, a sharp shift from seven years ago when the bill sailed through his committee.
“Not to reauthorize this is a tragedy,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Wednesday. “This is one more step in the removal of rights for women.”
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the panel, said while he supports a reauthorization of the law, he has concerns with the Democratic bill because it would lead to the issuance of thousands of additional visas under the U-Visa program, which gives illegal immigrants who are victims of crimes a chance to gain legal status if they cooperate with law enforcement.
On top of that, Grassley said it would fail to resolve immigration fraud and said grant money given to victims has not been adequately tracked. At the committee meeting last month, Grassley also raised concerns about language in Leahy’s bill to broaden some of the law’s provisions to those in same-sex relationships.
In response, Grassley introduced his own bill that included stricter criteria for U-Visa eligibility. But Democrats rejected that bill saying it would gut a key Justice Department enforcement office and undermine the protections in the law.
Republicans said Wednesday they might move their own bill once the issue heads to the floor. And they pushed back on Democratic criticisms that they were being insensitive to women.
“It’s a politically popular bill, and if you try to improve it, or change it, and make it more efficient, then the complaint is you don’t care about the issue,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a member of the committee. “Nothing can be further from the truth.”
But Schumer added, that if the Republicans take positions that turn off voters, it’ll be their own fault.
“When the Democrats let the extreme left run the show, we lose out. We’ve learned that lesson the hard way on many occasions,” he said. “When Republicans let the hard right run the show, they lose out.”