Domestic violence bill passes Senate: Is GOP chastened by Election 2012?

The Senate passes VAWA, a domestic-violence bill that was caught in gridlock last year. But signs suggest that the House could be ready to compromise with the Senate this year.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia, shown here at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington last week, could be key to the passage of VAWA.

The Senate passed the Violence Against Women Act by a broad bipartisan margin on Tuesday, pushing the long-languishing act into the hands of House Republicans who stalled the law’s enactment during the last session of Congress.

All 55 Democrats joined more than half the Republican caucus (23 in favor, 22 opposed) to pass a bill that reauthorizes some $660 million in funding for violence prevention programs during the next five years.

Everyone in Congress agrees VAWA, as it’s known, is necessary – what’s unknown, like so much else on Capitol Hill, is whether there remains the political will to iron out differences between the House and Senate. But there are several signs that point toward the bill’s enactment this time around.

Democrats sense their GOP colleagues may be making electoral adjustments in light of the shellacking their party took at the hands of female voters in the 2012 elections. Each of the Senate’s 20 female members, including five Republican women, voted for the measure, and eight Republicans switched their votes from “nay” to “aye” since last year's vote.

“One of the lessons from this election is that women are going to stand up,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota after the vote, before referencing several of the GOP’s most wince-inducing statements about women and women’s health from the 2012 election cycle. “I don’t think it’s a surprise that we’re seeing some movement now on the Violence Against Women Act.”

The 2013 law differs from its 2012 version in three key ways that may help its passage.

Gone is an expansion of visas for victims of violent crime that Republicans derided as a backdoor “amnesty” program. Added are two provisions with strong Republican support: one that provides for expedited reviews of untested rape kits and another that reauthorizes the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which aims at helping victims of human trafficking by strengthening coordination between law enforcement agencies and upping penalties for convicted traffickers.

Another sticking point from last year – expanding protections to include the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community – is no longer seen as a deal-breaker. The major hurdle that remains is a provision that allows native Americans to bring charges against their attackers in Indian tribal courts.

Supporters of this provision argue that the problem is pressing – about 3 in 5 native American women are subject to abuse during their lifetime – and that authorities often struggle to prosecute such cases under existing laws and resources. In essence, allowing tribal courts to hear such charges patches a gap, the bill’s advocates say, that allows abuse to go unpunished if it occurs on an Indian reservation.

But conservatives see the legislation as constitutionally problematic because it would, in their eyes, deprive non-native American defendants of rights to due process and trial by a jury of their peers.

In 2012, both chambers of Congress passed VAWA reauthorization bills. The Senate passed the measure, 68 to 31, while the House approved the bill in a narrower, more partisan vote of 222 to 205. The bill was left unenacted after the House cited procedural problems and stalled moving the measure into a committee that would iron out differences between the two bills.

The prospects for VAWA in the House this year are also improved by the involvement of House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia.  Mr. Cantor has said in recent days that he is having “daily meetings” on the issue with the office of Vice President Joe Biden and House minority whip Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland and hopes to take up VAWA in an “expeditious manner.”

“We need to get [domestic violence victims] the relief that this bill offers,” Cantor said on the House floor last week. “We want to protect the women who have been subject to abuse on tribal lands.”

Adding to the bill’s momentum, 17 House Republicans sent a letter on Monday to their House leadership urging prompt consideration of the bill. While Republican House leadership has vowed to not bring bills to the floor that won’t be supported by more than half its own caucus, unanimous support from Democrats alongside those 17 Republicans would be nearly enough to pass the bill should it come to the floor.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who fought to pass the bill early in the year, said he would be eager to work out differences with the House.

“We’ll negotiate," he said after the vote.

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