Money, gay provision snag anti-violence legislation

photo Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., second from left, the lead author of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, joined by, from left, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Christopher Coons, D-Del., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, following the Senate's passage of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013.

WASHINGTON - Tennessee and Georgia senators last week joined 74 colleagues in voting to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, but some local House Republicans aren't sold on doing the same.

As the latest budget fight rages between President Barack Obama and House Republicans, the measure's $600 million cost and new protections for homosexuals are prompting questions that never surfaced in the bill's first three approvals.

U.S. Rep. John "Jimmy" Duncan Jr., a Knoxville Republican, said most constituents wouldn't be unreasonable in expecting him to cast a supporting vote.

"Every bill is given a motherhood-and-apple-pie title," Duncan said outside the House chamber. "But if you voted [based] on the title, you'd vote for every bill up here. If we'd all done that, the country would have crashed a long time ago.

"So this is another bill with a motherhood-and-apple-pie title," he added.

Passed in 1994 and renewed twice without controversy, the Violence Against Women Act reauthorizes funding for pro bono legal assistance and training programs to help victims of violent sex crimes, stalking and other forms of dating and domestic abuse. Despite the bill's title, the benefits apply to female and male victims.

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"Like most men, I'm more opposed to violence against women than even violence against men," Duncan said. "Because most men can handle it a little better than a lot of women can."

But the longtime fiscal conservative added that he'll have to examine the Senate bill and its costs before he commits.

"Last time my main concern was the money," said Duncan, who voted for the most recent renewal in 2005.

The new bill allots $659 million over five years for various initiatives, including college counseling programs, HIV/AIDS awareness and specialized training for law enforcement officials handling sexual assault cases. Records show the $659 million represents a drop in funding from the 2005 measure.

The Senate on Tuesday passed the bill 78-22. Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee and Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia cast supporting votes.

Isakson said in a statement: "As a husband, a father of a daughter and a grandfather of five granddaughters, I voted to reauthorize ... to ensure that local law enforcement and shelters that assist victims of domestic violence continue to receive the support they need."

House negotiators are drafting a companion measure, and 17 Republicans last week signed a letter to Speaker John Boehner urging speedy action. None of the 17 calls Tennessee, Georgia or Alabama home. The lone Southern signer hails from West Virginia.

Spokesmen for U.S. Reps. Chuck Fleischman, of Ooltewah, and Scott DesJarlais, of Jasper, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, a North Georgia Republican.

There are hurdles beyond cost. One is a small but crucial new provision in the 286-page-bill: that abuse victims cannot be excluded from federal assistance because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Among the hesitant is U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican who represents the Nashville suburbs.

"It used to be women, and we wanted to keep it focused on women," Blackburn said when asked about the same-sex provision. "Many of those that we've talked to in law enforcement have encouraged us to do that."

Annually, 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner in the United States, according to a 2000 Justice Department study.

"Violence is bad against anyone," said U.S. Rep. Diane Black, another Republican based near Nashville. "Anyone, period."

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, a physician and Johnson City Republican, said he'd have to read the Senate version before making up his mind.

"Our senators probably for good reason supported it," Roe said, "and I suspect it'll pass out of the House."

Explaining his support Thursday outside the Senate chamber, Corker recalled a "close relationship" with Chattanooga's police force when he was the city's mayor.

"I was very aware of a lot of domestic violence in our community," he said. "I want to do those things I can at the federal level to put an end to it."

Alexander agreed.

"Tennessee's district attorneys met with me last week to say that this law is one of their top priorities," he said in a statement. "I am confident that after a successful conference with the House, the law will be further improved."

The Senate bill provides new authority to tribal courts to prosecute non-native abusers accused of assaulting Native Americans on Indian reservations. Several Republicans say that infringes on non-natives' constitutional rights. Compromise efforts are under way in the House to allow for non-natives to appeal to federal court.

"Up here," Corker said, "you can't vote for part of a bill."

Alabama's Republican pair split itself down the middle, with Sen. Richard Shelby supporting the bill and Sen. Jeff Sessions opposing it.

President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have urged speedy approval in the House.

"Delay isn't an option when three women are still killed by their husbands or boyfriends every day," Biden said in a statement. "Delay isn't an option when countless women still live in fear of abuse, and when one in five have been victims of rape. This issue should be beyond debate."