Last week's blockbuster report in the Washington Post that Mitt Romney bullied a closeted gay classmate in prep school creates a bit of uncomfortable timing for House Republicans as they consider a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
The House will vote this week on VAWA. But rather than follow the Senate's lead, House GOP leadership will consider a pared-down version that does not extend protections to gay and lesbian victims of domestic abuse. House Republicans have insisted that such an extension was unnecessary.
But with Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, eager to change the subject to different matters, the House bill could not be more poorly timed -- inviting critics to portray the GOP as insensitive to the serious threats of violence the LGBT community faces.
"The Republican Party is certainly not making friends when the news of the week is that the president is for gay marriage, Mitt Romney was an anti-gay bully in high school, and House Republicans don't think gay people should fall under violence protections," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign. "It's one thing to have a conversation about marriage, where obviously there are different opinions on it, but when you get into the realm of 'should we protect people from violence and bullying,' one would hope that these partisanship issues would go out the window."
Romney apologized for what he called his "hijinks and pranks" in high school during a radio interview last week, and he said he didn't know that his classmate was gay. But he also said he was "not going to be too concerned" about the Washington Post story, a remark that seems to downplay the seriousness of the incident at a time when anti-gay bullying is at the forefront of the national conversation.
Amanda Henneberg, a spokeswoman for Romney, referred The Huffington Post to a statement the campaign put out on VAWA's reauthorization in mid-April, which said Romney wanted the bill passed "without it turning into a political football." Pressed specifically for the candidate's position on extending protections to gay and lesbian Americans, Henneberg did not return a request for comment.
House Republicans have been less vague. GOP members of the House Judiciary Committee voted down several measures that would have included protections for LGBT victims of domestic violence in the House version of the VAWA reauthorization. One of those measures, sponsored by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), sparked a heated argument after Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said “there is little data” to support the need for “special protected status” for LGBT people.
Quigley told HuffPost that as a supporter of gay rights, the debate was "startling and traumatic" for him.
"The folks that sit next to me in Judiciary Committee, I feel like they're scoring this, trying to figure out how many bills can they get out there, how many statements can they make to say 'I'm more anti-gay than you,'" he said. "I'd like to see us move toward universal acceptance, and it pains me to think we're going in the opposite direction with a major party. I actually get the feeling that it's almost like a competition to be the most anti-gay, and it's a shame Romney can't pull away from that and lead."
"What I heard from [Republicans] on my first day was, 'If you want to get along with us, stay away from guns, gays and God,' and I haven’t seen them move away from that," he continued. "If anything, as they go farther to right socially, they've latched onto that stronger and stronger."
Democrats have certainly sensed a political opening. The Obama campaign and allied committees criticized Romney in the wake of last week's bullying story. Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out an email to supporters on Monday asking them to sign a petition holding Republicans accountable for their failure to support an anti-gay bullying bill.
"Nine out of 10 LGBT students are bullied in school – and many times much worse," the email says. "Congressman Jared Polis and Senator Al Franken have taken on this difficult issue by offering the Student Non-Discrimination Act. The bill would simply give LGBT kids the same civil rights protections guaranteed by other anti-discrimination laws... Now get this: Republicans in Congress won't bring it to a vote and Mitt Romney refuses to say whether he supports it."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that the DCCC sent out a fundraising email Monday. It has been corrected to reflect that the email directed supporters to a petition and did not ask for money.