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Arlen Specter: GOP Hurt 'Terribly' By Going After Women's Rights

Posted: 03/25/2012 3:03 pm

WASHINGTON -- In his new memoir, Arlen Specter, the moderate Republican senator from Pennsylvania who famously switched to the Democratic Party in 2009, decries the partisanship and extremism in modern politics.

One of the issues that exemplifies these characteristics, Specter argues in "Life Among the Cannibals," is the controversy surrounding women's reproductive rights.

"The abortion issue continues to drive Senate polarization and paralysis," he writes. "Some Democratic senators will not support a pro-life nominee, and some Republican senators will not support a pro-choice nominee. 'Extremist' often serves as code for pro-choice or pro-life."

Specter was one of the few pro-choice Republicans in the Senate -- a breed that will become even rarer in Congress with the impending retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

In an interview with The Huffington Post on Friday, Specter said he believes that "some Republicans" are waging a war on women -- a term that Democrats frequently invoke regarding the GOP's attempts to defund Planned Parenthood and restrict access to contraception.

"I think some Republicans are," he said. "I wouldn't categorize the whole party that way, but there enough of them that it gives credence to the charge."

When asked whether he thinks the GOP is hurting its prospects with women voters, he exclaimed, "Terribly! Terribly!"

"You can't win a presidency, a general election in Pennsylvania with that stand," he said. "The suburbs of places like Philadelphia decide the presidential election. Everybody knows where California and New York are going. Everybody knows where Texas and Mississippi and Louisiana are going. But Florida and Pennsylvania and a few other states determine it. That just won't sell. That's why [Rick] Santorum got drubbed in 2006 [during his Senate reelection race]."

The latest controversy is the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, a landmark piece of legislation that has never before sparked partisan battles -- until now.

On Feb. 2, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation (S. 1925) reauthorizing VAWA, which expired in September. 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.

Specter, along with then-Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), was an original cosponsor of VAWA.

When asked what he thinks of the law becoming partisan, he said, "I think it's very sad."

"I have followed Sen. [Jeff] Sessions' comments to the press that there are some provisions they don't like. But the basic Act is very very important and ought to be passed. Whatever differences there are can be worked out on the floor with amendments," he added.

Sessions, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, recently said he favors reauthorizing VAWA, but he accused Democrats of being the ones to make it political and argued that the current version has provisions that "almost seem to invite opposition."

“You think that’s possible?" he told The New York Times. "You think they might have put things in there we couldn’t support that maybe then they could accuse you of not being supportive of fighting violence against women?”

The Judiciary Committee's objections, led by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and several 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 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 Native American and non-Native American 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.

Supporters of VAWA have stepped up their push to reauthorize the legislation, although it has not yet come up for a vote in the Senate.

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