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House, Senate Clash on Domestic Violence Bill

Election year politics threatens to derail the typically bipartisan renewal of the Violence Against Women Act as House Republicans and Senate Democrats chart a collision course over explicitly extending protections to Native Americans, illegal immigrants and others.

House Republicans announced today that they are drafting a bill that is not expected to include provisions in the Senate Democrats’ version that would help Native Americans, illegal immigrants, and lesbian, gay and transgendered individuals.

“We are still in the drafting phase, but I will tell you that we are not going to be looking at the controversial issues that detract from what is actually VAWA,” bill sponsor Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.) said at a news conference. “We need to make sure that we don’t allow this bill to become a political issue. This [has been] a bipartisan bill, and it should stay as such.”

Differences between the two bills will have to be reconciled in a conference, which could delay enactment of a measure complicated by political considerations. Of course, the fact that a conference committee is even being contemplated could bode well for an eventual compromise.

Currently, the parties are staking their ground. The GOP has charged Senate Democrats with using the bill to cast Republicans as unfriendly to women, a key demographic that could help decide the November elections. Recent polls show Republicans trailing Democrats with female voters.

The House bill, which should be fully drafted by the end of the week, could be considered by the House Judiciary Committee the week of May 7 and on the House floor the following week, Adams said.

The Senate could clear its bill as soon as Thursday, but final passage could spill until after the recess.

Republicans argued that there is no need to include the Senate Democrats’ specifications in the bill because “victims’ services are for everyone,” Adams said.

Rep. Kristi Noem, also a co-sponsor, said that Republicans want to ensure that the final version of the measure does not have any unintended consequences with regard to criminal law.

“It’s not meant to exclude anyone; the intention is to truly get the funding and the programs for the victims,” the South Dakota Republican said. “We want to make sure that we are getting the help to victims. We just need to make sure that we are also consistent throughout our criminal law policies.”

Noem comes from a state with a significant Native American population, and she said, “We are checking out and doing some more research on” whether Native Americans would need any additional provisions in the bill.

Her comments came as Senate Democrats argued today that the Native American provisions are needed, as well as the other provisions opposed by Republicans.

“Every time we have reauthorized this bill, we included bipartisan provisions to address those that are not being protected … today,” said Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), who chairs the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm. “However, for some reason this time some of our colleagues would like to pick and choose who qualifies for this assistance.”

Murray said that Democrats included the provisions because “we have decided in 2012 that we as a country need to be more inclusive when it comes to protecting and providing these services for all women affected by violence.”

She dismissed criticism from Republicans that Democrats were seeking political gain from the proposal.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who spoke at the news conference with Murray, said that although the measure is not intended to exclude any woman, in practice Native American, illegal immigrant, and lesbian and transgendered women often are.   

“What this bill does is it makes it very, very clear” that no one can be excluded, Boxer said.

Under the Senate bill, tribes would be the authority to hold offenders accountable for their crimes against Native American women, regardless of the perpetrator’s race. Currently, tribes cannot punish non-Indian men who batter their wives.

The bill also would give battered undocumented women temporary visas to encourage them to come forward. The current cap for U visas given to crime victims is 10,000, but that could be increased to 15,000 by using visas unclaimed since 2006.

The bill also would update nondiscrimination policies for grantees to add the terms “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.”

With 61 co-sponsors, including eight Republicans, the measure is expected to pass in the Senate. But first the Senate must decide whether to allow Republicans to offer amendments to the proposal.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) want the opportunity to offer a substitute that would address GOP concerns with the bill.

But given the filibuster-proof number of Senators who have already committed to the bill as written, Democratic leaders may not be inclined to allow any amendments. A Senate Democratic leadership aide said no final decision on the issue has been made.

Boxer said she hopes there is not a long amendment process.

“When you have a bill that has a filibuster-proof number of co-sponsors … I would hope we wouldn’t have to have a series of amendments,” she said.

The traditionally bipartisan bill was first signed into law in 1994 and was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005. VAWA supports specialized law enforcement units to investigate domestic violence crimes. Since the passage of the act, annual incidents of domestic violence have dropped by more than 60 percent, according to supporters.

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