On renewal of Violence Against Women Act, Senate Democrats have upper hand

After passing the Senate unanimously in years past, the Violence Against Women Act, with revisions, faces strong partisan opposition. Still, Republicans don't want to be tagged as waging a 'war on women.'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 24, 2012, following the Democrats' weekly strategy session.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., center, accompanied by fellow GOP leaders, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 24, 2012, following a Republican strategy session.

In an election year, everything Congress touches gets an extra jolt of politics. And so it is with the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which funds programs addressing domestic abuse. Reauthorization is proving more difficult than usual.

In the bill’s proposed new version, Senate Democrats have added provisions to help gays and lesbians, make available more temporary visas for battered women in the country illegally, and offer more protection for native American women. Some Senate Republicans complain that this expansion needlessly gets into controversial social issues.

But the Democrats have the upper hand. All 53 members of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, plus eight Republicans, have signed on as co-sponsors, giving them a filibuster-proof supermajority. And with Republicans under attack for waging a so-called war on women, they are loath to risk looking antiwoman by holding up the reauthorization.

On Tuesday, the two Senate leaders – majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada and minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky – both spoke optimistically about a speedy reauthorization of VAWA.

“There’s no reason to have a fight over something nobody wants to have a fight over,” Senator McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Senator Reid said he was happy to resolve the issue quickly, as long as there were no efforts to weaken the legislation.

A GOP version of the bill would, among its provisions, limit the number of visas available to aliens in the United States who seek temporary legal status because of domestic abuse. The bill would also not add to the deficit, Republicans said. Last week, Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, the ranking minority leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would not block a vote on reauthorization as long as there’s also a vote on the Republican version.

The Obama administration, which backs the Democratic version, has criticized the delay in reauthorization, using the same argument that it did over contraception coverage – that it’s a settled issue. The original VAWA was signed into law in 1994 and has been reauthorized twice with unanimous Senate support, in 2000 and in 2005.

Vice President Joe Biden, who drafted the law as a senator, spoke out last week on the delay.

“The idea we’re still fighting about this in Congress, that this is even a debatable issue, is truly sad,” Mr. Biden said in remarks at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on April 18. “It’s not a reflection on the law. It is a reflection on our inability in this town to deal with something that by now should just be over in terms of debate about it.”

The Democratic version of the bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in February on a party-line vote, 10 to 8, but the legislation has been stuck since in partisan gridlock. Even if it passes the Senate, the Republican-controlled House presents a bigger hurdle. Without reauthorization, the law will expire in September.

“We started this journey in the 1970s, and we are here in 2012 and suddenly people want to make this partisan,” says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority. “It’s crazy. Violence begets violence and creates all kinds of pain and suffering. We want people to know this is not permissible behavior.”

Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.

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