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VAWA Reauthorization: Senators Introduce Bipartisan Bill That Corners House Republicans

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VAWA REAUTHORIZATION
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) reintroduced his Violence Against Women Act bill with a change that puts more pressure on House Republicans to act. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) | AP

WASHINGTON -- Congress failed to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act last year, a first since the law's inception in 1994. But Senate Democrats reintroduced their bipartisan bill this week, with a twist that makes it harder for House Republican leaders not to give it a vote this time.

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) unveiled their VAWA bill on Tuesday. Just like their legislation last year, the bill would reauthorize the law and add new protections for members of the LGBT community and Native American women. It also adds a new provision that provides for audits of untested rape kits and gives law enforcement resources to help reduce the backlog of rape kits.

The biggest change is that their bill nixes a proposal to increase the number of available U visas; that is, visas for immigrant victims of violence. The provision was a key piece of Leahy's bill last year, but his decision to take it out was strategic: It means House Republican leaders can no longer accuse him of having a "blue slip" problem. The term refers to an obscure practice the House can use to kill a bill that originates in the Senate if it raises revenue. The Constitution requires that all revenue-generating bills originate in the House.

In the case of VAWA, House Republican leaders argued last year that the Senate bill was dead in the water because it would generate revenue by imposing a fee for those new visas.

Not this time, Leahy says.

"There's no blue slip question here," he told reporters after a Wednesday press conference. "So if [the U visa piece] is not there, let's pass all the rest of it. If I can get 90 to 95 percent of what I want, I'll take that and then fight for the other 5 percent."

Democratic aides said that advocates for immigrant victims agreed to remove the provision in the name of advancing the bill through both chambers. Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, vowed to make sure the provision passes as part of comprehensive immigration reform, which is expected to come before his committee later this year.

VAWA already appears on track to sail through the Senate. Leahy said he had just come from a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who said he is "strongly" in favor of expediting the bill through the Senate. On top of that, three Republican senators -- Sens. Crapo, Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Susan Collins (Maine) -- showed up to Leahy's press conference, along with Democrats, to urge House Republicans to get behind the Senate bill.

"This year, we're going to get it done," Crapo said. "We have still some issues that remain ... We will work with each other and with the House of Representatives to make the necessary adjustments, if needed, to get that broad bipartisan support and to get this bill to the president's desk."

Even Vice President Joe Biden, an original sponsor of the law, gave a push to the Senate bill on Twitter.

"The need for a strong #VAWA bill could not be more clear or urgent. All victims should be protected. Congress should pass VAWA. --VP," Biden tweeted.

It remains to be seen how the House plans to proceed. House Republicans passed a pared-down VAWA bill last year that went nowhere, and it wouldn't go anywhere in the Senate if they brought it up again. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) on Tuesday introduced legislation that is identical to Leahy's bill, and while it has 158 cosponsors, none are Republicans.

Spokespeople for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) gave identical statements when asked if or when the leaders plan to introduce their own VAWA bill -- and if they had any response to the Senate Democrats tweaking their bill to eliminate the blue slip problem.

"We’re looking at the best ways to move forward on VAWA legislation so we can protect women and prosecute offenders," Boehner spokesman Mike Steel and Cantor spokesman Doug Heye each said in separate statements. They noted that Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.), the sponsor of the House VAWA bill in the last Congress, is no longer in Congress.

Asked if he's been in talks with House Republican leaders, Leahy said he's talked with "a number of people in the House," but wouldn't specify who they were.

"I'm being a little vague because I'm keeping their confidence," he told The Huffington Post. "But I know there are a lot of people there who said, 'Gosh, we should have just taken [the Senate bill] up and passed it last year.' So I think there is a strong willingness to move forward."

House Republican leaders may be keeping mum on their plan for now, but some VAWA advocates already have an eye on which Republican they want to take the lead in that chamber: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who chairs the House Republican Conference and is the highest ranking woman in the House.

Deborah Parker, vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, said that she and other advocates met with McMorris Rodgers Wednesday morning to discuss VAWA -- and that the meeting went very well.

"We'd like her to take the lead," Parker told HuffPost. "I think there's a likelihood. She's very interested and she really worked hard to understand the tribal provisions."

A McMorris Rodgers spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment. It's not the first time her name has been floated as an ideal GOP leader on the issue, though: Senate Democrats reached out to her for help on VAWA last fall.

During their Wednesday meeting, Parker said McMorris Rodgers asked advocates to reach out to other GOP congresswomen to urge their support for the inclusive VAWA bill, which the advocates proceeded to do after the meeting. Parker said she also met with another House Republican from her home state, Rep. Dave Reichert (Wash.), and said he is also putting out calls on VAWA. Ultimately, though, Parker said McMorris Rodgers could be the key to getting VAWA done.

"She opened the door to us and is willing to meet with us," Parker said. "It's been difficult to get into some of the other offices."

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly identified Mike Crapo as a senator from Utah.

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