WASHINGTON — Southern Democrats in Congress criticized Tennessee Republicans for opposing an anti-domestic violence bill that includes new protections for homosexuals, transgender people, Native Americans and other minority victims.
"It's the 21st century," Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said in an interview after the vote. "You have to respect the dignity and worth of all human beings."
All seven Tennessee House Republicans on Thursday opposed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Along with two women, that group includes U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, of Ooltewah, and U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, of Jasper.
"I think Republicans are coming around with so many people wanting to bring them into 2013," said U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. "Not all of them."
Through various initiatives, the Violence Against Women Act assists female and male victims with domestic and dating abuse. The third renewal of the act, which first passed in 1994, was a challenge because of new anti-discrimination provisions for gays and others. Many Republicans also opposed language that gives tribal courts fresh authority to prosecute non-native people on reservations.
Still, the GOP-dominated House passed the legislation 286-138. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and 85 other Republicans supported the bill.
Spokesmen for DesJarlais and Fleischmann declined requests for comment. The same went for Tennessee's women in Congress.
U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn slammed the bill's same-sex provisions from the outset. But in a February interview, U.S. Rep. Diane Black predicted passage and said she's against "violence against anyone." Both hail from the Nashville area.
Also last month, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan, of Knoxville, said the Violence Against Women Act had "a motherhood-and-apple-pie title" that deserved further scrutiny. He echoed those concerns Thursday after voting "nay."
"I simply did not want more of our crime-fighting money going to federal bureaucrats and paperwork," he said in a statement. "Local law enforcement agencies are already doing a very effective job in combating violence."
House leaders brought the Senate bill to a vote only after a Republican substitute failed to pass. Fleischmann, DesJarlais, Black and Blackburn supported the substitute, which retained core provisions but eliminated language protecting gays, Native Americans and others.
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., also supported the earlier House bill.
"As someone who cared for women for more than 30 years," the Johnson City OB/GYN physician said, "I am proud to continue working on their behalf."
Lewis, the Atlanta Democrat, said his Republican colleagues opposed the final bill because they fear a socially conservative electorate.
"They shouldn't be afraid," Lewis said. "People elect you to lead, to teach, to inspire and to get people to move to a certain level where you create a greater sense of community."