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Senate Queues Up Passage of Domestic Violence Law Renewal

Senators are poised to pass a domestic violence law rewrite next week without a clear endgame on tribal court provisions, the central sticking point in negotiations with the House.

On Thursday, the Senate rejected a GOP alternative to the bipartisan bill (S 47) that would renew and update the 1994 law known as the Violence Against Women Act. Senators will vote early next week on a half-dozen amendments and final passage of the five-year renewal of the law (PL 103-322), which combats domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.

The amendments include a proposal from Vermont Democrat Patrick J. Leahy to authorize funds for combating human trafficking and other changes related to child victims of sex trafficking, rape cases, notifications of exposure to sexually transmitted disease and tribal provisions.

The GOP alternative defeated Thursday would have stripped language to give American Indian tribal courts more authority over non-tribal perpetrators of domestic violence on tribal land. Offered by Charles E. Grassley, of Iowa, the substitute amendment instead proposed a $25 million authorization for federal judges and prosecutors in tribal areas to handle domestic violence cases and be available for civil protection orders. The amendment was rejected by a 34-65 vote.

The underlying bill seeks to counter high rates of violence against American Indian women and to mitigate the challenges that come with the reliance of tribes on often distant and limited federal resources to deal with non-American Indian perpetrators.

“Too often, these crimes go unprosecuted and unpunished,” said Tom Udall, D-N.M. “Not only is violence inflicted, but justice is denied.”

Udall said the bill would allow tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians only “in a narrow set of cases,” explaining that the defendant would have to have ties to the tribe, and the prosecuting tribe would have to offer the defendant certain rights.

“Native women should not be abandoned to a jurisdictional loophole,” he said.

But critics of the measure question whether it can pass constitutional muster. Grassley called the bill “very cruel . . . to provide tribal women the illusion of a solution that courts may well strike down on constitutional grounds in the future.”

Leahy, the bill’s sponsor, retorted that Grassley offered a “poor substitute” for his proposal.

Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar echoed him, saying, “This is a false alternative that does almost nothing to solve the epidemic of violence against native women.”

Other Proposed Changes

The Grassley substitute also sought to revise a mechanism that allows immigrant victims of abuse to pursue legal status without the need for sponsorship by their U.S. citizen or permanent-resident spouses. The amendment language would have let immigration officials interview the accused abusers in determining whether to grant legal status to the victims.

Grassley argued the provision would prevent fraudulent claims of abuse, in which “foreign nationals prey on U.S. citizens simply to get a green card.”

The Republican alternative also proposed a range of new requirements for “U visas,” which are given to immigrant crime victims who are willing to help law enforcement agencies in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity. The amendment would have required, for example, that the crime be under active investigation or prosecution.

The House and Senate passed competing reauthorization measures last year after the domestic violence law lapsed in 2011. But a bicameral compromise never materialized because lawmakers were unable to overcome House objections to language that would have paid for an increase in U visas. Senators agreed to drop that contentious provision this time.

Grassley’s amendment also would have allowed repeat drunk drivers to be deported and created a range of mandatory minimum sentences for such crimes as forcible rape and aggravated sexual assault. In addition, it would have added grant-auditing requirements, restricted grantees’ lobbying activities and limited the use of funds under the law for administrative fees and salaries.

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