WASHINGTON — House Republicans set up a showdown Wednesday with the Senate and President Barack Obama over legislation to protect women from domestic violence, a fight that’s become as much about female voters this election year as cracking down on abuse.
The House voted 222-205 to reauthorize the 1994 Violence Against Women Act for five years, as the Senate already had done. But big differences remain: Obama, other Democrats and a long list of advocacy groups say the House bill doesn’t go far enough to protect abused immigrants, Native Americans or gays. Republicans say their bill does more to protect taxpayers from fraud and maintains the constitutionality of law enforcement procedures on Indian land.
It’s unclear whether the differences will be reconciled before the November elections, or whether the bills will be used as campaign weapons.
But a pair of domestic violence survivors who fell on opposite sides of the debate reminded their House colleagues that for them and other abused women it’s about far more than politics.
“The man I married had a penchant for drinking and was very violent when he drank,” the bill’s sponsor, freshman Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Fla., said during floor debate.
Wisconsin Democrat Gwen Moore recalled what it was like to try to press charges against her rapist in the days before the law’s passage.
“I took him to court (but) indeed, I was on trial,” Moore said. “I had to prove, as a victim, that I was not being fraudulent in my accusations. They brought up how I was an unwed mother with a baby. Maybe I seduced him. They talked about how I was dressed.”
But in Washington this presidential and congressional election year, every issue is pressed for political advantage, even the government’s main domestic violence-fighting law twice reauthorized with broad bipartisan support. Women account for the vast majority of domestic violence victims. They also account for the majority of voters in presidential election years and a critical bloc Democrats have tried to maintain in 2012 by accusing Republicans of waging a “war against women.”
In a veto message issued late Tuesday before the House voted, the White House said the GOP-written bill takes “direct aim at immigrant victims of domestic violence and sexual assault” and jeopardizes victims by placing them “directly in harm’s way.”
The 1994 anti-violence law provides millions of dollars to programs such as legal assistance for victims, enforcement of protection orders, transitional housing aid and youth prevention programs. Its 2005 reauthorization expired last year.
Majority Democrats in the Senate would expand the law to specifically protect gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender Americans from discrimination and abuse in a move many Republicans saw as a provocation to vote against a bill approved without objection previously. Senate Republicans also objected to Democratic provisions in the bill that would give tribal authorities the power to prosecute non-Indians for abuse committed on tribal lands, saying it was unconstitutional because the accused would have no role in shaping laws that could be used against them.
The Senate bill passed, 68-31, last month, with 15 Republicans voting yes.
Six Democrats voted for the House bill Wednesday: Reps. John Barrow of Georgia, Shelley Berkley of Nevada, Dan Boren of Oklahoma, Jim Matheson of Utah, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina and Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
On the eve of the House vote, Republicans revised Adams’ measure to bring it closer to the Senate version. Gone, for example, was a provision that would have compromised the confidentiality of battered illegal immigrants who break from their partners, cooperate with law enforcement and apply for their own citizenship. But the White House said it still allows abusers to become aware of their victims’ allegations.
Also still problematic for some were provisions that prevent Native American authorities to prosecute non-Indians who commit abuse on Indian land.
Under a 1978 Supreme Court decision, non-Indians cannot be prosecuted by tribal courts for crimes committed on tribal land. Last July, the Justice Department recommended that Congress give tribes local authority to prosecute non-Indians in misdemeanor domestic and dating violence cases.
Instead, the Republican version allows a battered Native American woman or a tribe on her behalf to file in U.S. District Court for a protection order against an alleged abuser, whether Indian or not, who committed the abuse on Indian land. But the White House and other Democrats want tribal courts to be able to prosecute the offenders.
The revised House version omits the Senate’s references to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders, a support-killer for advocates for those groups.
An armada of groups advocating for women, immigrants, Indians and gays said they were taking names and holding accountable lawmakers who vote for the Republican bill, arguing that such a vote was akin to voting against the Violence Against Women Act.
North Carolina Republican Virginia Fox said it pained her to hear Democrats accuse supporters of the bill of being uncaring toward battered women.
“Republican men and women both abhor violence against women,” Fox said during the floor debate Wednesday. “I would say that we are more concerned against violence against women. … We want to see the (federal) money spent better.”