Push On Violence Against Women Act Shows Democrats 'Scheming,' Republicans Say (UPDATE)

WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats began their push to renew the Violence Against Women Act on Thursday, as the Republican leader accused them of perpetuating a scheme to make the GOP look bad.

"I mean, if you're looking for the reason Congress has a 9 percent approval rating, this is it," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), arguing that the attempt to renew the law, which expired in 2011, is part of a broader attempt by Democrats to rig legislation so that the GOP can't back it.

"A day after we read a headline in the Congressional Quarterly about Democrats moving to slow a jobs bill that got 390 votes, we see a story today about how the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate is 'scheming' to spend the rest of the year hitting the other side," McConnell said in a floor speech.

"At a moment of economic crisis, the No. 3 Democrat in Senate, the Democrat in charge of strategy over there, is sitting up at night trying to figure out a way to create an issue where there isn't one -- not to help solve our nation's problems, but to help Democrats get reelected," said McConnell, referring to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

"The American people need to know what's going on in the Democrat-controlled Senate," McConnell said, entering Thursday's Politico story into the record.

But Democrats were not deterred, sending several woman senators to the floor to make the case for renewing the Violence Against Women Act.

"I think what we want to let people know is that we women care," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) shortly after her turn at the mic, noting that one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, had joined them.

"The Violence Against Women Act is an important commitment to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse that they are not alone," said Murkowski. "This is a promise that resources and expertise are available to prosecute those who would torment them and also a reason to believe that one can actually leave an abusive situation."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) scoffed at McConnell's complaint, noting that his party had delayed the transportation bill over a proposed amendment from Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that would have let employers cancel coverage of their employees' contraception.

"I have traveled across New York state discussing my vision for how to grow the economy and create jobs by finding common core values to pass what shouldn't be partisan ideas," Gillibrand said. "After stalling the transportation bill for weeks over an ideological fight to roll back women's access to basic health care, this is the kind of hypocritical rhetoric that Americans are tired of seeing in Washington."

Feinstein also suggested that any scheming was not on the Democratic side.

"Let me put it this way: There's been a long litany of attempts to weaken services to women -- and the last one was about a week ago with the Blunt amendment -- and over the past 20 years that I've been here, all over reproductive rights," Feinstein said. "About once a year, there's been something on reproductive rights. It's been a constant battering ram. Equal pay for equal work -- that was difficult to move."

Republicans have argued that they are not opposed to the Violence Against Women Act as it was passed before, but they don't like new provisions that would extend greater protections to undocumented immigrants, gays and transgender individuals and would grant more authority to tribal prosecutors.

"I think it's things that have never been in the Violence Against Women Act, because if we had just a straight reauthorization, it would pass 100 percent," said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Noting that the cost of the legislation had been cut by more than $100 million, Feinstein said she'll be interested in seeing which parts the GOP tries to strike.

"We'll see if this is part of an effort to essentially reduce services to women, whether it's because the bill adds same-sex people, whether it's because the bill affords the services to people who are here in undocumented status," she said.

Since all Republican members of the judiciary panel voted against the bill in committee last month, Feinstein also worried that proponents will have to overcome a filibuster to pass it.

With 53 Democrats in the Senate plus five Republican co-sponsors of the bill, it is still just shy of the needed 60 votes, although Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said Thursday that she would vote to at least start debate. She added that Republicans should have a chance to vote on changes to the legislation.

"I think we need to take up the bill, and I think we need to have an open amendment process," Hutchison said. She expressed concern that the tribal provisions could create double jeopardy for accused abusers, who might be charged in tribal and state courts.

Senate Democrats could bring up the bill as soon as next week, but hope to get to it before the Easter break. The House has not taken any action on a companion measure.

UPDATE: 7:45 p.m. -- Sen. Grassley's office later released a statement, insisting that the Republican leadership would not get in the way of reauthorizing the law as long as the GOP alternative was considered as well.

"The Violence Against Women Act program has strong bipartisan support in the Senate," Grassley said. "It's a shame that the majority party is manufacturing another partisan, political crisis, because in actuality, there is no concern that the VAWA will go away. The law is being funded and VAWA programs are running as they have since the reauthorization actually ran out last year."

His office also pointed to Grassley's full statement raising his concerns with the bill at a hearing last month.

Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.