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Violence Against Women Act Becomes Partisan Issue

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WASHINGTON -- Protecting women from violence and abuse has been an issue of bipartisan cooperation since President Clinton signed the landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994. It was reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2000 and again in 2005. Not this year.

On Feb. 2, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation (S. 1925) reauthorizing VAWA. The bill was sponsored by Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) -- who is not on the committee -- and cosponsored by 34 senators from both parties. Nevertheless, the legislation attracted no GOP support among committee members and passed out of committee on a party-line vote of 10-8. It was, according to Leahy's office, the first time VAWA legislation did not receive bipartisan backing out of committee.

"Helping victims of domestic violence shouldn't be partisan," said Leahy in an interview with The Huffington Post. "I remember when I was a prosecutor and I'd go to a crime scene at 2:00 in the morning where [there were] victims of domestic violence. ... I never remember the police saying, 'Well, we can only investigate this if it's a Democrat or a Republican or whatever else. Their reaction was, 'How do we find the person who did this?' It's outrageous to make this a partisan issue."

Since VAWA was first enacted, reporting of domestic violence has increased by as much as 51 percent. The legislation, originally introduced by then-Sen. Joseph Biden -- who continues to be an outspoken advocate on the issue -- was aimed at improving the response to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. Yet according to national statistics, more than three women are, on average, murdered by their husbands or boyfriends every day.

The Leahy-Crapo reauthorization would place an increased emphasis on reducing domestic homicides and sexual assault, strengthen housing protections for domestic violence victims and focus more on the high rates of violence amongst teens and young adults.

The objections, led by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and a few conservative organizations, are not over the VAWA as a whole, but over a few new provisions in the reauthorization -- specifically, protections for LGBT individuals, undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse and the authority of Native American tribes to prosecute crimes.

The Leahy bill enumerates protections for LGBT victims of domestic violence, forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity by VAWA grantees.

The VAWA reauthorization also expands the availability of visas for undocumented immigrants who have been victims of domestic violence and may be reluctant to come forward because of the risk of deportation. VAWA has always protected this group of individuals, but the reauthorization would raise the cap on visas for battered women and sexual assault victims from 10,000 to 15,000. The additional visas would come from recaptured visas in previous years that haven't been utilized.

Additionally, the reauthorization provides limited jurisdiction to tribes to be able to prosecute against Indian and non-Indian offenders in domestic violence cases. The tribal provision is taken from the SAVE Native Women Act, which had bipartisan support and passed out of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

In a Feb. 2 hearing, Grassley said he backs VAWA reauthorization, but he could not support the Leahy-Crapo version, in part because of the aforementioned provisions on LGBT individuals, immigration and tribal authority.

"The substitute creates so many new programs for underserved populations that it risks losing focus on helping victims, period," he said of the new LGBT protections, adding, "If every group is a priority, no group is a priority."

Grassley also objected to the tribal language, saying it was the first time the committee would "extend tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians."

On the immigration front, Grassley said, "VAWA is meant to protect victims of violence. It shouldn't be an avenue to expand immigration law or give additional benefits to people here unlawfully."

The amendment Grassley proposed in committee would have focused more on immigration fraud, so that VAWA is not "manipulated as a pathway to U.S. citizenship for foreign con artists and criminals."

Leahy is concerned that his colleagues are objecting because, in his words, the bill is trying to "protect too many victims."

"You cannot say that we will seek to stop domestic violence, but only for certain people," he said. "It just boggles the mind. It goes against everything I ever knew as a prosecutor, but it also goes against everything I know as a human being.

In a Feb. 9 editorial, The New York Times lambasted Grassley and other Republicans for their objections.

"The bill includes smart improvements aimed, for example, at encouraging effective enforcement of protective orders and reducing the national backlog of untested rape kits," the Times wrote. "The Republican opposition seems driven largely by an antigay, anti-immigrant agenda. ... Recalcitrant Republicans should be made to explain to voters why they refuse to get behind the federal fight against domestic violence and sexual assaults."

A Democratic senate aide familiar with the legislation largely agreed with this assessment in an interview with The Huffington Post.

Leahy recently said on the "Diane Rehm Show" that he is confident that VAWA will pass the full Senate and that Crapo, his co-sponsor, is still behind it.

"I talked with Mike the other day when -- on the Senate floor after we had passed the bill out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he's strongly in support of it," he said.

Lindsay Nothern, a spokesman for Crapo, told The Huffington Post, "Crapo has been a long-time advocate for victims of violence. I believe there are other Republicans who would support the legislation in a floor vote."

Leahy also pointed to the Republican co-sponsors on the bill and added, "I've had other senators tell me -- Republican senators -- that they just cannot understand how this happened."

The Republican co-sponsors of the Leahy-Crapo bill are Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

On Tuesday, Lynn Rosenthal, the White House adviser on violence against women, put up a blog post urging the Senate to approve VAWA reauthorization.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) office did not return a request for comment about when the VAWA reauthorization would be on the floor for a full vote.

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