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Republicans Face Test in Upcoming Vote on Renewing Domestic Violence Law

House Republican leaders may need every vote they can get this week when they bring to the floor a five-year reauthorization of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act.

The Senate passed its renewal of the law (S 47) on a bipartisan 78-22 vote on Feb. 12. But in the House, Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided over whether the chamber should take up the Senate bill or a considerably narrower and more contentious substitute introduced by House leaders late last week.

All 200 House Democrats are co-sponsors of a House bill (HR 11) that is a companion to the Senate measure. As a result, most are likely to vote against the GOP substitute, which Democratic leaders assailed as insufficient last week because it omits language aimed at protecting gay and lesbian, immigrant, American Indian and other abuse victims.

Democrats may choose to set up a floor vote on their bill through a motion to recommit, though a spokesman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would not indicate Monday whether Democrats would pursue that strategy. The Rules Committee meets Tuesday to set the rules of debate.

If Democrats are united, Republicans are not.

A bipartisan group of 17 moderate Republicans sent a letter to Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., on Feb. 11, urging them to bring a consensus bill to the floor. “We believe a bipartisan plan to reauthorize VAWA is more important than ever,” wrote the lawmakers, led by New Jersey Rep. Jon Runyan.

If those 17 moderates join with all 200 Democrats in opposing the leadership-backed substitute, the coalition would have enough votes to reject the legislation, given the House’s three current vacancies.

Separately, 11 other House Republicans voted against a similar, leadership-backed reauthorization of the domestic violence law when the chamber passed it on a 222-205 vote last May, and those Republicans may continue to have reservations. That legislation ultimately died when time ran out on the 112th Congress.

It is still unclear whether Republicans who are opposed to the leadership-backed measure will vote against it, however. Two moderate Republicans said in interviews Monday that they would vote for the House substitute as a way to move the process into conference negotiations, even though they favor the Senate’s more expansive bill, which also includes provisions to renew a human-trafficking law and to combat dating violence on college campuses.

“I can support the Senate bill as passed,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. “Absent that option, I will vote for the House bill and move the process forward.”

“The biggest thing is to get it reauthorized,” Runyan said.

Tribal Language in Focus

Even conservative Republicans who are closely aligned with House leaders have expressed uneasiness about the House substitute. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said last week that the legislation “falls short” in one area that has emerged as a key difference between the House and Senate bills: how to respond to cases in which American Indian women are abused by non-Indians on tribal land.

The Senate bill authorizes American Indian tribes to exercise jurisdiction over crimes of domestic violence that occur within that tribe’s boundaries, but the House bill takes a more complex approach. It requires tribes to submit a request to the attorney general for a “special domestic violence jurisdiction” certification. The approval can take up to 120 days to process, and tribes must prove they are able to and will provide defendants with their constitutional rights.

The House bill also includes language that allows tribes to prosecute incidents of domestic abuse against their citizens only if they have specific written laws against such abuse. Tribes often do not have written laws, a GOP leadership aide noted. In addition, the House bill would allow tribes to pursue such prosecutions only if crimes are misdemeanors, rather than felonies. Felonies should be prosecuted by the federal government, the aide said, noting that tribes currently impose sentence of up to a year, no matter the severity of the crime.

Cole said last week that he would offer an amendment “to address these shortcomings.” His amendment is likely to mirror a bill (HR 780) that he is co-sponsoring with seven other Republicans that would attempt to strike a compromise between the two chambers’ versions.

Like the Senate bill, it allows tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians accused of domestic violence offenses against Indian victims. But it would also allow non-Indians being tried by a tribal court to claim that their rights aren’t being respected and request the case be moved to a U.S. district court instead.

“I stand ready to work with House leadership and have reached out to Speaker Boehner several times. I have not heard from House leadership once this year,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.

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