Do lesbians count as "abused women" if they are beaten by a woman instead of a man? Should gay men be protected from violent partners? What about illegal-immigrant women, who were born elsewhere but hit,
raped or stalked on U.S. soil? Or Native American women?
Those are the questions at the heart of the growing controversy that has taken reauthorization of the iconic Violence Against Women Act from easy-to-pass legislation to partisan bomb material in an election year that favors fights over compromise, no matter what the issue may be.
The Senate will take up the legislation this week, when VAWA is scheduled to come up for a vote. The bill has the support of 61 senators, with all Democrats supporting it, along with eight Republicans, including Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Scott Brown (Mass.) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine).
But no Republican voted to advance the legislation out of the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year when GOP senators aired their complaints that the Democrats’ newest version would expand the law’s benefits to people never imagined in the original measure.
Democrats could have written a straight renewal of funding for the legislation, which distributes grant money to state and local law enforcement agencies and nonprofit groups to answer emergency calls, train first responders, and provide shelter and services for women who have been abused by husbands or male partners. By drafting another bill like the last, the funding for those programs would have been easy to secure, even in this budget environment.
The new VAWA expands the definition of who is covered by specifying that a person cannot be denied abuse services based on sexual orientation or gender identity, or that of the abuser. Another new provision would increase the number of American visas for illegal-immigrant victims who assist in the prosecution of their abuser, while additional language would give tribal courts more power in domestic abuse cases.
Democrats who drafted the expanded bill say that American communities have changed since VAWA was written in 1994 and that the legislation has to keep pace. Among the country’s 9 million gay men and lesbians, domestic abuse occurs at about the same rate as it does among heterosexual couples.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D), a former governor of New Hampshire, said the nondiscrimination language has been on the books in individual states for years. “I can tell you first-hand that New Hampshire has had that kind of non-discrimination language in place since I was governor,” she said Monday.
In a show of Republican opposition to it, Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.) called the Democrats’ newest version of VAWA “shameful” and accused its sponsors of trying to score “cheap political points” by adding new pieces to the bill that they know Republicans will reject.
In an op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle, Cornyn wrote, “The law was enacted to protect and serve the interests of crime victims, not to help a political party fire up its base. Moreover, to argue that a minor policy disagreement indicates a lack of sensitivity toward battered women is simply beyond the pale.” Cornyn’s own state of Texas received more than $15 million in VAWA funding last year, including grants to the Migrant Clinicians Network and the Migrant Health Promotion.
With a majority of Senate Republicans planning to oppose the bill unless the new language is stripped out, Cornyn predicted that the measure will fail. “Unfortunately, due to partisan politics, it will not become law,” he said.
Cornyn may be right. With more than 60 supporters in the Senate, VAWA should be able to beat a filibuster and pass with a bipartisan majority. But it will be a different story in the Republican House, where even noncontroversial bills have a hard time getting through.
It’s a risky year on Capitol Hill to ask for more than you know you can get and, in the end, Democrats will have to decide if pushing to expand the Violence Against Women Act was worth the chance of losing the fight altogether. At the same time, Republicans will have to answer to the women and men trying to escape domestic abuse, who may never receive the help they need because they are not the right kind of victim in the eyes of today’s laws and the politicians who write them.
Patricia Murphy is the founder of Citizen Jane Politics and a contributor to the Daily Beast. She previously covered Congress for Politics Daily.