Violence Against Women Act passes Senate after heated rhetoric

The Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, passed the Senate Thursday, 68 to 31, after Democrats used it to accuse Republicans of being antiwoman.

A new version of the Violence Against Women Act, the legislation that Democrats used as a backdrop to accuse Republicans of waging a "war on women," passed the Senate Thursday afternoon 68 to 31.

Fifteen Republicans joined every Democrat in voting for the measure. The passage reauthorizes a wide variety of services for abused women and men for five years.

"This violence must end," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota, one of the bill's main champions, on the Senate floor Thursday. "And so we all know that we can no longer stand and say it is someone else's problem. We can't let our own differences, minor that they may be on various provisions, get in the way."

The House is expected to vote on VAWA, as the law is known, next month. Republicans in that chamber are drafting their own version.

Traditionally, VAWA generated nary a bit of partisan sniping. This year, however, Republican concerns over a handful of new provisions in the Senate legislation gave Democrats an opening to slam their GOP colleagues for standing in the bill's way.

In doing so, Democrats hoped to advance their already-large advantage with female voters in presidential polls by painting Republican resistance to the bill as further proof of their argument that Republicans are waging a "war on women."

Senate Democrats added provisions to VAWA that would help gays and lesbians receive domestic-abuse protections, make more temporary visas available for battered women in the United States illegally, and offer native American women more protection.

"A victim is a victim is a victim," thundered Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, one of the bill's lead sponsors, on the Senate floor Thursday. "You don't say we can help you if you fit in this category, but sorry battered woman, you're on your own, because you're in the wrong category. That's not America."

Senate Republicans complained, among other things, that this expansion gets into controversial social issues meant to embarrass the GOP more than help women. 

Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona said he could not support the bill in part because its language regarding the relationship between native American courts and US citizens was "blatantly unconstitutional."

Concerns about the size and role of the federal government in state affairs also generated some skepticism.

“My opposition to the current VAWA reauthorization is a vote against big government and inefficient spending," said Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah "and a vote in favor of state autonomy and local control." He added, "We must not allow a desire by some to score political points and an appetite for federal spending to prevent states and localities from efficiently and effectively serving women and other victims of domestic violence.”

The Senate vote – like those on a transportation bill and postal reform before it – sets up a cross-Capitol confrontation, as the VAWA legislation being drafted by House Republicans will have substantial differences with its Senate counterpart.

In the lower chamber, Republicans led by Reps. Sandy Adams of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota offered the outline of their VAWA bill Wednesday. While still being drafted, the bill will all but certainly not contain the Senate's trio of controversial provisions.

“I can assure you that the House is not opening up the bill in controversial ways like the Senate bill does," said Adams spokeswoman Lisa Boothe in an e-mail. "This is a bipartisan issue and should not be used for political fodder.”

The House bill also differs from the Senate version in allocating more funds for sexual-assault investigations, prosecutions, and victim services; increasing penalties for stalking; and making administrative changes that sponsors say will send more money to programs and victims and less to the federal bureaucracy.

That bill is currently scheduled to be marked up in the House Judiciary Committee the week of May 7, the week after Congress returns from work in their home states, with a vote scheduled for the following week.

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