By Catalina Camia
WASHINGTON — President Obama said Thursday he will sign the sweeping expansion of the Violence Against Women Act, following a House vote to renew the law and bring gays, lesbians and transgender people, Native Americans and immigrants under its protections.
The House vote was 286-138, with 87 Republicans joining 199 Democrats to pass the bill. The measure now heads to Obama's desk.
"Over more than two decades, this law has saved countless lives and transformed the way we treat victims of abuse," Obama said in a statement. "Renewing this bill is an important step towards making sure no one in America is forced to live in fear, and I look forward to signing it into law as soon as it hits my desk."
The law, credited with raising awareness about abuse of women, expired in 2011. While many Republicans agreed renewing the law was necessary, some conservatives raised objections to specific protections for people because of their sexual orientation and the provisions giving Indian courts greater jurisdiction in domestic violence cases.
The measure easily passed the Senate in the 112th Congress, but stalled in the House. The House's vote on Thursday represents an about-face for Republicans, who recognized they took a drubbing at the ballot box among women voters in the 2012 elections.
Obama won 55% of the women's vote, following a campaign that touched on issues such as contraception and funding of Planed Parenthood. Democrats portrayed the GOP as waging a war on women, hurting the party's standing among a crucial voting bloc.
The legislation authorizes funding for programs that help victims, as well as those that prosecute people accused of domestic violence and sexual assault. There are also new provisions dealing with stalking that would cover the use of spyware and video surveillance equipment.
The original law created a National Domestic Violence Hotline and authorized federal funding for battered women's shelters. It was written and pushed by Vice President Biden when he was in the Senate, and passed in 1994.
Biden said renewal and expansion of the law was necessary, noting 40% of mass shootings start "with the murder targeting their girlfriend, or their wife, or their ex-wife." Since the law first passed 18 years ago, Biden noted there has been a 64% reduction in domestic violence.
"I am pleased that this progress will continue, with new tools for cops and prosecutors to hold abusers and rapists accountable, and more support for all victims of these crimes," Biden said in a statement.
The final vote on the Violence Against Women Act came only after House members first rejected a GOP-written version of the bill that did not include the sweeping expansions. It was rejected on a 166-257 vote, including the objections of 59 Republicans.
Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., said the GOP version of the bill would protect all people and not put them into specific categories. She said that measure was "superior," because it was "all-inclusive."
The House then adopted a bipartisan Senate version of the bill, which passed earlier this month on a 78-22 vote. The Senate bill had the support of all 20 women in the chamber and 24 of its 45 Republicans.
Before the House's final vote, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a dozen Democratic women tied the Violence Against Women Act's renewal to the impending across-the-board spending cuts that kick in Friday. The cuts, known as sequestration, could trim $20 million authorized to enforce the law.
"It is specific, it is large, it is substantial and it must be avoided," Pelosi, D-Calif., said.
Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., criticized Republicans for passing the bill a day before budget cuts will "take a sledgehammer" to programs that support victims of domestic violence. "This is shameful," she said.