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Senate votes to reauthorize Violence Against Women Act

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), second from left, the lead author of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, is joined by, from left, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Christopher Coons (D-Del.) during a news conference on Capitol Hill following the Senate’s passage of the act on Feb. 13. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The Senate has agreed to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, showing bipartisan support for a measure that would revamp domestic violence programs and extend the law’s protections to gays and lesbians and women on tribal reservations.

The 78-to-22 vote puts pressure on the GOP-held House to also act to renew the 19-year-old measure, which Congress has twice reauthorized but which lapsed in 2011 amid partisan disputes over key provisions.

The House and Senate also could not resolve differences between versions of the measure during the height of the campaign season last year. Democrats hope Republicans will be more anxious to work out a deal this year, as the GOP has been trying to win back female voters, who preferred Democrats in the November election.

Indeed, intense negotiations are underway in the House over a key Republican objection to the Senate legislation — new authority afforded to tribal courts to prosecute the non-native abusers of Native American women on Indian reservations.

Domestic violence rates are particularly high on reservations, and women sometimes face a legal limbo in which local courts hold no authority over the abusers because they are not Native Americans. But some Republicans are concerned that subjecting non-Native American men to tribal courts would strip them of Constitutional protections.

Efforts to strike a compromise that would provide new protections to Indian women but allow non-native men to appeal to federal courts have been led by Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who represents large numbers of Native Americans, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who has discussed the issue with Vice President Biden, one of the original Senate architects of the legislation.

Many Republicans also oppose new language in the Senate bill that clarify programs created and funded through the statute should not discriminate against gays and lesbians and it is not yet clear how the House and Senate will resolve a dispute over that issue.

Just before the Senate vote Tuesday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told colleagues the bill would confirm that a “victim is a victim is a victim — and violence is violence.” A strong bipartisan vote, he said, would “send a message” to the House to pass the measure.

President Obama praised the bipartisan Senate passage in a statement Tuesday. “This important step shows what we can do when we come together across party lines to take up a just cause,” Obama said. “The bill passed by the Senate will help reduce homicides that occur from domestic violence, improve the criminal justice response to rape and sexual assault, address the high rates of dating violence experienced by young women, and provide justice to the most vulnerable among us. I want to thank Senator Leahy and his colleagues from both sides of the aisle for the leadership they have shown on behalf of victims of abuse.”

A growing number of House Republicans have urged their leadership to move forward on reauthorization. The statute provides grants to state and local governments to assist in the prosecution of abusers and rapists and to fund services for victims’. The Senate version also would expand programs to efforts to combat sex trafficking.

Since it was first passed in 1994, VAWA has been credited with raising awareness of the problems of domestic violence, helping to bring down the number of cases reported.

The reauthorization would streamline and consolidate some programs and allot $659 million over five years for VAWA initiatives, a drop in funding from the measure adopted in 2005.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.

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