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Last Ditch Effort on VAWA Under Way

Lawmakers are in negotiations to take one final crack at approving the Violence Against Women Act before year’s end, but last minute talks may not be enough to iron out the remaining differences.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., are working together to try to bridge the gap on some of the outstanding issues between Democrats and Republicans on the measure’s reauthorization, including new language that expands rights to the gay community, immigrants and inhabitants of tribal land.

Sources close to both Cantor and Biden issued generic statements confirming talks are happening, but did not provide much detail beyond that. The unwillingness to talk about the negotiations could indicate both seriousness to reach an agreement and the difficulty of finding common ground. And while sources tracking VAWA’s progress admit the work is real, there is deep skepticism that House Republicans will compromise enough to support legislation similar to a Senate-passed bill that was approved with GOP votes, 68-31, in April.

“I think the talks are serious, but the prospects dim,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. “House Republicans don’t seem to be learning the lessons of the campaign and election.”

Democrats had been hopeful that because women and minority voters overwhelmingly favored them in November’s elections, Republicans would come around on some of the basic provisions involving immigrant and gay rights. One Democratic source who has been working on the bill said that VAWA’s reauthorization is a “good opportunity” for Republicans to show that they “have learned or are learning” from their failure to make electoral inroads with key demographics affected by the legislation.

But the aide noted that it is “too soon to tell whether it’s people going through the motions or [if they] are committed to real policy solutions” in the most recent uptick of activity on the initiative.

With most of the Hill’s political oxygen being consumed by the negotiations to avert the fiscal cliff, the reauthorization of the lapsed bill extending rights to victims of domestic abuse has largely fallen by the wayside. So the fact that talks are again happening on VAWA gives some of the legislation’s chief backers some hope for approval.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D- Vt., took to the floor Thursday to tout a House bill co-sponsored by Reps. Darryl Issa, R-Calif., and Tom Cole, R-Okla., that could complement the Senate bill on the tribal lands issue. Leahy called the House bill a potential “breakthrough” for overall VAWA fight.

“They all have tribes within their states and are concerned about the violence our Senate bill is trying to combat,” Leahy said of the House bill, which would allow defendants to move a case to federal court if their rights are violated.

“Some in the House Republican leadership have expressed a ‘just say no’ approach to any grant of tribal jurisdiction but the House Republican leadership should give serious and thoughtful consideration to this Republican proposal so that we can move forward and protect thousands of victims,” Leahy continued.

Meanwhile, on the larger bill, Biden and Cantor’s commitment to finding a solution could prove helpful. The two have a good working relationship and have come together before on major issues, most notably in the summer of 2011 to try to make headway on a deal to avert government default and reduce the deficit.

“This week I’ve actually been encouraged to see that we could very well see agreement on VAWA, and I’m very hopeful that that comes about,” Cantor said on the floor this week. “I am encouraged about the discussions that my office is having with the vice president’s office right now, that bill being a high priority of Vice President Biden.”

If the bill is to pass before the end of this Congress, an agreement likely would have to be struck outside of the confines of a formal conference, something for which Boehner had previously called.

“Time is short in that we’re looking at two, at most three, weeks,” said the Democratic source tracking the bill. “We don’t want to get into specific deadlines because when there’s actually an agreement, things can go quickly around here.”

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