WASHINGTON – Side-stepping a politically dangerous fight, Senate Republicans made temporary peace with Democrats to approve the reauthorization of a popular law designed to help prevent and respond to domestic and sexual abuse.
Passage of the Violence Against Women Act on a 68-31 vote gives momentum to the legislation, which would reauthorize more than $650 million in programs. Fifteen Republicans joined Democrats in passage. But the bill still faces hurdles in the House, where Republican leaders plan to offer an alternative proposal.
“The Violence Against Women Act is an example of what the Senate can accomplish when we work together,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who was the author of the bill along with Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho.
Usually the reauthorization has bipartisan support. But this year it has become enmeshed, at least temporarily, in the partisan wrangling that has dominated this Congress.
Senate Democrats sought to expand the legislation to specifically ensure protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. Their version, which had a robust 61 co-sponsors, also sought to increase the number of visas available for immigrant women facing abuse.
A Republican alternative largely skipped those provisions, and added new ones that many Democrats did not support, including mandatory sentences for certain criminal convictions.
But Senate Republicans decided to avoid a prolonged fight in an election year in which Democrats have accused them of waging a “war on women.” The GOP had sharply criticized the Obama administration’s requirement that insurance plans offer free contraceptive coverage.
“I’m going to support the Violence Against Women Act even if it falls short,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who put forward the Republican alternative.
The legislation now goes to the House, where Republican women are introducing their own proposal. It would extend the legislation for five years – rather than one, as in the Senate bill – and would include many provisions similar to those in the Senate GOP proposal.
The House Republican version also aims to shift money to help process the backlog of rape kits, which can help to identify suspects in sexual abuse cases.
The Violence Against Women Act, originally written by Vice President Joe Biden when he was a senator, was first approved in 1994. The current authorization expired last year, but the programs have already been funded through the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30. This bill, if signed into law, would reauthorize the programs for the next fiscal year.