Even as most of the headlines coming out of Washington these days contain the word sequester, another bill is moving along, making progress without quite so much drama. But the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), passed in the Senate and due for action in the House, is no less important.
After the legislation was approved with bipartisan support in 1994, it was reauthorized twice without incident. In the midst of partisan battles last year, a version of the reauthorization that expanded protections for immigrants; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people; and Native American victims passed in the Senate but stalled in the House. A House version that omitted those provisions failed to win Senate or White House approval.
So it was up to a new Congress. Earlier this month, a streamlined bill that compromised on some of the disputed issues passed with a greater margin in the Senate– 78-to-22– than last year’s final tally. The measure was hailed by lead author Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and co-author Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), with Sen. Marco Rubio among the “no” votes. The Florida Republican said he supported parts of the bill but objected to some of the new provisions, including a shift in funding for some of its programs.
“The legislation provides a lifeline for women and children who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault,” Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) said before the Senate vote. “Since its original passage the incidence of domestic violence has actually decreased by 53 percent in the United States.”
House Republicans last week released their own version of the legislation and are prepared to take it to a floor vote this week. While House Republicans are confident of the effectiveness of their bill, it has not resolved disputed differences with the Senate proposal.
“I cannot say enough about the revolution that was the Violence Against Women Act,” said Sarah Tofte, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation. “Those of us who work on these issues, who care about these issues, see it as forming the core of our country’s response on violence against women and girls.”
Joyful Heart was founded by “Law & Order: SVU” star Mariska Hargitay in 2004 to aid sexual-abuse victims and raise community awareness. It’s one of many organizations and individuals who have been working on getting the act reauthorized.
Tofte said last week that the Violence Against Women Act not only provided very much needed services for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, it also serves as “an incredibly powerful, potent, meaningful symbol.” She also supported the changes in the Senate bill, informed, she said, by experts in the field. “We were a little thrown by how much opposition there was,” Tofte said. “We were thrown by a lot of the tension and struggle around convincing some legislators that it was worthy to support provisions aimed at survivors that in the past were underserved.”
Tofte’s own past work with Human Rights Watch broke ground in changing local, state and federal policy and funding to test the backlog of thousands of collected rape kits that were, she said, “a tangible symbol that a rape case didn’t get very far in the system.” Though Joyful Heart does not use money for VAWA for its programs, Tofte said that continuing uncertainty over reauthorization doesn’t create the most stable environment for organizations and jurisdictions that do.
“We’re working very, very hard to convince the House leadership that we can’t delay this any longer, that we have to pass this now.” Tofte said there are a lot of House members, both Republicans and Democrats, who want to see the act passed. She called last year’s lack of progress on the bill “a bit embarrassing … that’s not who we have shown ourselves to be in the past as a country in terms of our government’s response to violence against women and girls.”
“I have a hard time believing that we’re going to run into the same struggles as last year. That being said, I don’t know.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3