WASHINGTON ― For his final act in Congress, retiring Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) single-handedly killed a bill that would have helped combat the horrific levels of violence directed at Native women.
For her final act in the Senate, Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D), who lost her re-election bid in November, unsuccessfully fought to push Goodlatte out of the way and let her bill, known as Savanna’s Act, become law.
With both of them gone in the new Congress that begins on Jan. 3, the question remains: Is Savanna’s Act gone too? It turns out Heitkamp’s real final act was locking in a Republican colleague to carry the torch for her.
“I’ve committed to Sen. Heitkamp that this priority that she has helped to advance, I am going to encourage every step of the way, aggressively and early,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters last week, according to an audio recording provided by Murkowski’s office on Wednesday.
“I’m looking for partners. I’ve already talked to Sen. Cantwell, she’s willing to join up with me,” she said, referring to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).
Heitkamp, of course, is thrilled.
“It’s disappointing that one Republican member of Congress blocked Savanna’s Act from passing this year. But fortunately, Rep. Goodlatte won’t be around to block it in the new Congress,” she said in a statement. “I’ve talked with Sen. Murkowski about Savanna’s Act and I’m so proud that she will reintroduce my bill in the new year. I know Sen. Murkowski and many others in the new Congress will continue to carry on this important mantle and I’ll continue to be a vocal advocate.”
The bill sounds like a no-brainer; it increases communication between federal, state, local and tribal officials and strengthens crime data collection. It would create locally developed guidelines for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans. It doesn’t cost any additional federal money.
Savanna’s Act sailed through the Senate unanimously this month. It was on track to sail through the House, too, until Goodlatte blocked it. At the last minute, he proposed removing entire sections of the bill and raised concerns with a provision that gave an incentive to the Justice Department to give law enforcement grants to agencies willing to focus on abuse directed at Native women.
The goal of the bill is to help the federal government better respond to what has become a crisis of missing and murdered Native women. In North Dakota alone, the rate of violence directed at Native women is so high that almost everyone in Indian Country ― more than 30,000 American Indians live in the state ― personally knows someone who has gone missing or been murdered, according to Heitkamp.
“It’s horrifying,” she said in a statement. “If that was the case across the entire country, there would be a national call to action to address this issue. But it’s hidden in tribal communities.”
The overall level of violence faced by Native women is equally appalling and undiscussed: 84 percent of Native women experience violence in their lifetime, and in some counties, they are murdered at 10 times the national average.
Murkowski said she’s ready to push the issue immediately.
“We’re going to be working it. We’re going to be working it early,” she said. “We’re going to make the difference.”
This article has been updated with a statement from Heitkamp.