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Democrats Tweaking Domestic Violence Legislation

Violence Against Women Act will be reintroduced without some of the contentious provisions that doomed it in 112th

Democrats are reintroducing legislation this week that would renew the Violence Against Women Act for five years, and the updated proposal includes at least one key concession to Republicans.

The renewal of the 1994 law, which was reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2000 and 2005, faltered during the 112th Congress, when Democrats tried to expand the statute to include new protections for domestic violence victims who are gay and lesbian, American Indians and immigrants. Republicans criticized those changes as an election-year ploy designed to isolate the GOP and give a campaign advantage to Democrats, particularly among female voters.

But Republicans also raised a more technical concern about the bill Democrats pushed through the Senate last April. They said the Senate legislation contained an unconstitutional revenue increase that was part of a Democratic effort to make more visas available to immigrant victims of domestic abuse.

The provision was unconstitutional, House Republican leaders contended, because the Constitution requires all revenue legislation to originate in the House. The House passed its own version of the renewal — without the revenue language or the visa expansion — in May.

The bill that Democrats are introducing this week in both chambers appears to take the technical argument away from the GOP by simply removing the visa expansion and the revenue provision that pays for it.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. , is working with Democratic Reps. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin and John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and others on the House version of the bill. House Democrats have scheduled a Wednesday news conference to announce the reintroduction of the legislation.

“There is no increase in the number of available U visas,” according to an overview of the legislation released by Pelosi’s office Tuesday, a reference to the visa program that was a key part of the two chambers’ standoff over the domestic violence law last year.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Tuesday listed a VAWA reauthorization as among his top agenda items, and Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., reintroduced a new version.

In a statement Tuesday, Leahy said the new legislation does not include an increase in U visas available to immigrant victims.

“In the interest of making quick and decisive progress, we introduce the bill today without that provision in order to remove any excuse for House inaction,” Leahy said. “We have retained other important improvements for immigrant victims in the bill we introduce today as part of our commitment to ensuring that all victims are protected.”

Senate Democrats ran into a constitutional problem last year when they sought a modest expansion of the U visa program, which makes green cards available to some immigrant victims of domestic abuse who cooperate with law enforcement to help prosecute their batterers.

To pay for the expansion, Democrats imposed a $30 fee, a step that made the Senate bill unconstitutional in the eyes of the House.

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said the Senate legislation had a “blue slip problem,” a reference to the constitutional concerns about revenue, and his announcement sparked a monthslong standoff between the chambers over their competing versions of the reauthorization. Lawmakers eventually ran out of time.

Even if the new Democratic legislation eases Republicans’ constitutional concerns about revenue, it is unclear whether lawmakers will be able to resolve another disagreement — this one over how to handle incidents of domestic abuse that occur on American Indian lands.

Senate Democrats had sought last year to allow tribal courts to prosecute American citizens accused of such offenses when the victims are American Indians. Many Republicans protested, however, questioning whether U.S. citizens’ constitutional rights would be respected in tribal courts.

Two House Republicans, Reps. Darrell Issa of California and Tom Cole of Oklahoma, sought a compromise late last year by introducing legislation that would have allowed non-tribal defendants to be tried by tribal courts but would have also allowed such cases to be moved to federal courts if Americans’ rights were seen as compromised.

GOP leadership, however, never threw its support behind that proposal, and an intraparty fight ensued.

Lauren Smith contributed to this report.

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