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Violence Against Women Act to be Revisited in New Congress

(Photo: Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights / Flickr)

Among many of the partisan battles set to resurface in the 113th Congress is the fight over the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

Initially enacted in 1994 and reauthorized with little controversy in 2000 and 2005, VAWA fell victim to a potent mix of partisanship, preoccupation with the “fiscal cliff” and what many advocates say is the sexist and racist exclusion of immigrant, indigenous, LGBT and other groups who would have benefited from new protections in S1925, the expanded VAWA reauthorization bill the Senate passed in April, 68-to-31.

All 15 Republican women senators voted for the bill, but House Republican leadership refused to allow a vote on it. The House GOP put forth their own version without the expanded provisions. VAWA, whose protections apply to women and men who are victims of domestic or dating violence, sexual violence and stalking, expired on January 2. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) is expected to reintroduce VAWA in 2013.

“I saw the writing on the wall a while ago,” said Mara Keisling, director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. That message has been scrawled in a number of political languages.

House Speaker John Boehner used a procedural technicality to stall a vote on the Senate’s reauthorization bill. When the House passed its own version in May, he appointed eight Republicans to a conference committee to reconcile the two bills. The problem was, the Senate had never agreed to convene for reconciliation talks.

Native leaders worked with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office on developing VAWA’s tribal provisions at least as recently as mid-December, but a December 20 letter from the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) revealed frustrations deep enough to cast doubt on whether Cantor’s office was collaborating in good faith.

Tribal leaders were seeking more power for tribal courts and tribal law enforcement to protect Native American women, whose only recourse when they are assaulted by non-Native men is to seek federal intervention – a process fraught with geographical, cultural and other barriers.

The NCAI letter to Cantor objected to a late draft of some of the tribal provisions, saying it “would bolster the ability of abusers to game the criminal justice system, the very problem we are now trying to solve.” It cited numerous jurisdictional and constitutional problems that apparently ignored or overlooked existing federal Indian law.

The House bill also included similarly regressive counterparts to the Senate’s expanded protections for immigrant women. “Their legislation would have immigration agents tipping off violent abusers when victims try to leave,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-California), a former rape crisis counselor, told Truthout.

Critics have blamed racism and sexism on the part of House GOP members for the Senate-passed VAWA’s demise. Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart on a recent talk show about threats to the tribal protections remarked, “It’s as if they’re protecting white men from prosecution.”

Keisling sees another dynamic at work – the same one that played a role in the recent fiscal cliff talks that overshadowed VAWA’s looming expiration.

“It’s not even about policy anymore; it’s sort of about anti-policy,” said Keisling. “It’s just stunning to see the majority of one of the chambers of Congress doesn’t want anything done. They want to ruin the government to prove the government is already ruined.”

Some House Republicans said Senate Democrats are to blame for the death of VAWA because they refused to compromise. Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Florida), herself a domestic violence survivor, told the Orlando Sentinel in April that the expanded protections “needlessly politicize[d]” the bill. A December 11 letter from 120 House members urging House leaders to “move past politics” and bring a VAWA “similar to that which has already passed the Senate” to the House floor included signatures from some House Republicans, including Ted Poe of Texas and Richard Hanna of New York.

Senator Murray could not be reached for comment on details for her plans to reintroduce VAWA.

“I’m sure she will be a great leader on the bill and I’m sure the White House will jump in,” said Keisling.

Chu said she is optimistic about passing a favorable version of VAWA in 2013. “The fact is, too many people are counting on Congress to get this right, and the stakes are too high for them if we fail.”

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