Violence Against Women Act Prompts Partisan Debate Among Female Lawmakers

WASHINGTON -- The so-called "war on women" raged on in Congress Wednesday as female lawmakers in opposing parties clashed with each other in defense of the Violence Against Women Act, an otherwise bipartisan issue that has fallen prey to election-year fodder.

With the law's expiration looming in September, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told reporters at a press event that the best way to ensure its reauthorization is to pass the Senate Democratic plan. The proposal has 61 cosponsors -- eight Republicans signed on, which means the bill has enough votes to overcome a Senate filibuster -- and has previously passed the Senate with unanimous support. Since 1994, VAWA has provided funds to fight domestic violence and sexual assault, and has increased criminal penalties against perpetrators.

"There is no reason that it should be any different this time," Murray said of the need for all lawmakers to get behind the Democratic bill.

But Democrats want to expand the original law to include provisions that seem to invite opposition from Republicans. Their bill would increase the number of visas available to victims of domestic violence who are undocumented immigrants; ban discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender victims of domestic violence; and give more authority to Native American tribes to address domestic violence.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) disputed that those additions were aimed at making Republicans take a politically uncomfortable vote -- and potentially go on record opposing a bill focused on protecting women from violence.

"When you look at some of these issues that they are raising, I'm sorry, but there's a reason that there are Republicans are on the bill -- because they know it's the right thing to do," Klobuchar said.

In terms of visas for undocumented immigrants, Klobuchar said the provision only relates to 5,000 visas that were already issued over the past few years but were never used.

"We're technically simply reusing the number of visas that have been issued but not used," she said. "So it's not like we did some radical thing that would cause Republicans to oppose it. To the contrary, we got a number of Republicans on the bill."

Their bill doesn't look like it's about to go anywhere in the House, where Republicans have their own VAWA proposal. The GOP bill would provide the same level of funding but would redirect money for sexual assault investigations, increase maximum penalties under stalking laws and redirect more money for testing "rape kits." It also calls for mandatory audits of recipients of domestic violence funds, and it caps salaries and administrative costs of related services at the Justice Department. It doesn't include the protections for undocumented immigrants, Native Americans or the LGBT community.

During a House Republican press conference Wednesday, Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) called it a "moral responsibility" to defend women against violence and lamented that some in Congress "would like to make cheap shots and try to politicize it in an election year."

Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.), the author of the GOP bill, similarly wished that people wouldn't "allow this bill to become a political issue. This is a bipartisan bill and it should stay as such."

But the issue is clearly political for all sides. Contrary to what Adams said, her bill has no Democratic cosponsors, and GOP lawmakers at the event conceded they haven't reached out to the other party. If anything, the bill seems to be a rallying point for Republicans to push back on the notion that they're fighting a war on women -- a theme that President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats have been trying to hammer in and will likely continue to do so through the November elections.

The optics of Wednesday's press event were evidence enough of that pushback, as nearly a dozen female House Republicans gathered in a show of support for their party's VAWA bill. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) also joined them.

The GOP bill "has strong support within the House of Representatives, certainly among our Republican Conference, and as you can see we have our women here in support," Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.) said.

As if having two competing bills didn't already complicate VAWA's reauthorization, Senate Republicans are also planning to offer their own bill, which aides say will be somewhat different from the House GOP bill. On top of that, House Democrats also have their own bill, which is slightly different from the Senate Democratic bill.

Asked about the provisions that Senate Democrats want to include, Adams said Republicans are steering clear of those.

"We're not going to be looking at the controversial issues that will detract from what is actually VAWA," she said.

Noem, whose district includes many Native Americans, said after the press event that she doesn't support their inclusion in VAWA because she has concerns about consistency with federal criminal laws that govern tribes. She said she hadn't talked to Senate Democrats about whether their bill took those laws into account.

Pressed on why she wouldn't support the inclusion of Native American protections if she believes VAWA should cover everyone, Noem reiterated that "we just need to make sure we are also consistent with broader criminal law policies."

Senate Democrats said they hoped that House Republicans would ultimately just pass the Senate Democratic bill, or at least pass something bipartisan.

"Obviously, we hope that the House puts forward a bill that the Senate passed in a bipartisan way," Murray said. "That's how this has always been done. That is an extremely important criterion."

The House Republican proposal and the Senate Democratic proposal are expected to come up for votes in the next few weeks, after Congress returns from recess. It remains unclear whether House Democrats or Senate Republicans will get a vote on their bills.

"At this point we haven't agreed to give them anything," said a Senate Democratic leadership aide.

UPDATE: 1:58 p.m., April 26 -- A senior Democratic aide told The Huffington Post on Thursday that Senate Democratic leaders are "confident" their bill is headed toward passage and that "the three key provisions Democrats have fought for will be included in the final bill." After hours of closed-door negotiations with Republicans, Senate Democrats are poised to pass their bill as soon as Thursday night.