WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats, bolstered by Republican support, on Monday launched a new attempt to broaden a law protecting women from domestic abuse by expanding its provisions to cover gays, lesbians and Native Americans.
The legislation to renew the Violence Against Women Act appeared on a smooth path toward passage in the Senate, possibly by the end of this week. Monday's vote to make the bill the next order of business was 85-8.
Senate passage would send the bill to the House. Advocates hope that Republicans, smarting from election losses among women voters in November, won't repeat their resistance last year to the Senate approach.
"Allowing partisan delays to put women's lives at risk is simply shameful," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said before the vote. He said he hoped convincing support for the legislation in the Senate would "send a strong message to House Republican leaders that further partisan delay is unacceptable."
House Republicans, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, say reauthorizing the 1994 act, which expired in 2011, is a priority. But resolving partisan differences remains an obstacle: last year both the House and Senate passed bills but the House would not go along with Senate provisions that single out gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders for protection and give tribal authorities more power to prosecute non-Indians who attack Indian partners on tribal lands.
Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said that after last year's election both parties are eager to demonstrate that they are behind a pro-woman agenda. She said her group, which supports the Senate bill, had received "very positive responses" from the offices of both Cantor and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the top-ranked Republican woman.
The Senate bill, while making minor concessions to meet GOP concerns, is essentially the same as the measure that passed that chamber last April on a 68-31 vote, with 15 Republicans voting yes. It focuses on ensuring that college students, immigrants, Native Americans and gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people have access to anti-abuse programs.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that since the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, was enacted in 1994 the annual incidence of domestic violence has fallen by more than 50 percent. "We have something here that's been a success. These are thousands of lives made immeasurably better," said Leahy, sponsor of the legislation with Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican supporter from Maine, said helping victims of violence "should never be a partisan issue." She said that in her state nearly half of homicides were linked to occurrences of domestic violence and 13,000 Maine residents would experience some form of sexual violence this year alone.
White House press secretary Jay Carney urged Congress to move rapidly on the legislation. "Three women a day are killed as a result of domestic violence and one in five have been raped in their lifetimes. We should be long past debate on the need for the Violence Against Women Act," he told reporters aboard Air Force One Monday.
During election campaigns last year Democrats seized on the congressional stalemate over VAWA in claiming that Republicans did not represent the best interests of women.
Getting a bill to the president's desk this year could hinge on resolving the issue of tribal authority over domestic abuse cases.
Last year House Republicans objected to the Senate provision increasing tribal authority. Currently, non-Indians who batter their spouses often go unpunished because federal authorities don't have the resources to pursue misdemeanors committed on reservations.
The National Congress of American Indians says violence against Native American women has reached "epidemic proportions," citing findings that 39 percent of American Indian and Alaska native women will be subjected to violence by a partner in their lifetimes. It cited a 2010 government report finding that U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute half of violent crimes occurring in Indian country, and two-thirds of the declined cases involved sexual abuse.
Two House Republicans, Darrell Issa of California and Tom Cole of Oklahoma, last year offered a compromise that would allow non-Indian defendants to request that their cases be moved to federal courts, but the session ended before a deal could be reached. Cole is one of two House members claiming Indian heritage.
The White House, in a statement supporting the Senate bill, noted that rates of domestic violence against Native American women were among the highest in the country and the measure would build on existing efforts to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of tribal justice systems.
The Violence Against Women Act provides grants to state and local offices for legal assistance, transitional housing, law enforcement training, stalker databases and domestic violence hotlines. It also established the Office on Violence Against Women within the Justice Department.
The programs authorized under the act are still in place. But without reauthorization of the law, they cannot be expanded or improved. The Senate bill would consolidate 13 existing programs into four and set aside some $659 million over five years for the programs, down 17 percent from the last reauthorization in 2005. The bill would also give more emphasis to sexual assault prevention and take steps to reduce the rape kit backlog. In a concession to Republicans, it removes a provision in last year's bill that would have increased visas for immigrant victims of domestic violence.