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Violence Against Women Act: A political opening for Democrats?

Senate Democrats aim to extend the Violence Against Women Act, adding services for illegal immigrants and same-sex couples, a move Republicans say is out to score political points.

By Staff writer / March 15, 2012

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska poses for a picture with students before she speaks to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature in the House Chambers in Juneau, Alaska, last month. On Thursday, she sided with Democrats who want to extend the Violence Against Women Act.

Michael Penn/The Juneau Empire/AP/File

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WASHINGTON

Violence against women – once a bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill – is shaping up as a largely partisan clash, as Democrats push to extend a legislative winning streak on women’s health and rights.

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Six female Democratic senators were joined by Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (R) on the Senate floor Thursday to offer their support for the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which expired in September.

The bill expands funding for state and local governments to respond to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and (a new category) stalking.

Two previous iterations of the six-year bill, originally drafted by then-Sen. Joseph Biden in 1993, have been renewed with solid bipartisan support. However, the new bill cleared the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 2 without a single GOP vote.

Indications are that both sides are playing politics. 

Democrats have added provisions, such as expanding aid to same-sex couples and undocumented immigrants, that make the bill a nonstarter for many Republicans. In a presidential election year, Democrats are using the Republicans' opposition to bolster their claims that Republicans are waging a “war against women” – a bid to woo women voters. 

Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to force the Democrats to pay a political price for moving the bill. They want an open amendment process that would allow them to take out parts of the bill they say are unpalatable. 

Democrats say their additions to the bill are necessary and question the Republican decision to dig in. 

“It signals that there well could be a filibuster. Now, why?” says Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California. “The police department responds to a call regardless of who it is. And the service should be there regardless of who it is."

Republicans respond that their amendments to the bill were “summarily dismissed” in the committee, said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas.

“I think we need to take up the bill, and I think we need to have an open amendment process” on the Senate floor, said Senator Hutchison, who supports reauthorizing the law.

An open-amendment process is now rare in the Senate.

Specifically, Republicans are concerned about how the bill addresses domestic violence among Native Americans, as well as potential abuses of the system by illegal immigrants who claim domestic abuse to access temporary visas. The legislation also doesn't do enough to ensure "more money goes to victims rather than bureaucrats," said Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a statement.

But Republican opposition could come at a cost. 

President Obama now has a “cavernous” electoral advantage with women,” according to a new poll released by Pew Research Center President Andy Kohut at Monitor breakfast for reporters on Wednesday. Mr. Obama leads both Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney by roughly 20 percentage points among women, according to Pew’s polling.

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