WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats are set to try renewing the Violence Against Women Act as early as next week, opening a new and more literal front in what they see as a Republican war on women, The Huffington Post has learned.
The Violence Against Women Act passed overwhelmingly in 1994, and was renewed easily in 2000 and 2005. But it suddenly became a partisan issue last month, when every Republican on the Judiciary Committee opposed it, and it passed in a 10 to 8 vote.
Republicans objected to new language in the bill that would extend protections to undocumented immigrants and LGBT victims of domestic violence, as well as allowing native American authorities to prosecute some non-native offenders.
Democrats said they see that opposition as something that needs to be overcome for the sake of domestic abuse victims and another opportunity to highlight what they see as an increasingly hostile attitude toward women by Republicans.
"We were sort of shocked when every Republican on the Judiciary Committee voted against this," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Judiciary Committee and the Democrat in charge of his party's policy priorities and message.
He said the act did enormous good, and that the new version would help more. But he argued that Republicans are looking for ways to satisfy the conservative base of their party and seizing on things like contraception, women's health, and now even their safety.
"Their issue has been the economy, the economy, the economy. But it's getting better," Schumer told The Huffington Post Wednesday. "They need something particularly to appease their hard-right wing, and going against women seems to be it."
Schumer cited the recent conservative outburst against contraception, and noted that even though polls find the issue is hurting Republicans, the GOP has not relented, especially in the House.
"It makes no sense politically for any political party to alienate the fastest growing group of voters, Hispanics, and then alienate a large chunk of the majority of voters -- women," Schumer said, referring to numerous anti-immigration stances the GOP has taken in recent years, including objections to helping undocumented immigrants in the Violence Against Women Act. "It makes no sense at all."
The bill has five Republican co-sponsors, but would need at least seven GOP votes to get to the 60 needed to break a filibuster and pass the Senate. Such a level of support seems achievable in the upper chamber. The Republican-controlled House has taken no action on companion legislation.
Schumer argued that if the bill does not pass, it reveals the true extremism of the GOP base.
"They have a bunch of excuses for opposing the bill. None of them are good, and all of them are ideological," he said, referring to objections on immigration and helping tribes.
"Just as they said their anti-contraception bill wasn't about contraception, of course now they're saying their opposition to [the Violence Against Women Act] has nothing to do with violence against women," Schumer said. "But you can't oppose an important act, and say it has nothing to do with violence against women. It's going to be a losing argument if they try to block the measure."
Schumer said he wasn't sure that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell or House Speaker John Boehner would be able to marshal the support for the bill because of problems with the GOP base.
"When either party is held captive by an extreme group at their far right or their far left, respectively, they lose out. You have ideologues, and that's what's happening here," Schumer said.
"Speaker Boehner is in a struggle, and Leader McConnell to a lesser extent," Schumer said. "They're trying to have a foot on each stool and the stools are getting further and further apart."
"The hard-right wants to bring up the Blunt amendment," Shumer said, referring to Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt's failed attempt to exempt employers from having to provide insurance that covers contraception. "I think in his heart Speaker Boehner knows better than to do that. It's a loser for him, substantively and politically, but that's the two stools."
Schumer said he thinks one stool includes most Americans, who want contraception coverage and protections for abused spouses.
"This shows you where the Republican Party is moving," he said. "But we have no problem with highlighting women's issues. Women are a majority constituency. They often get forgotten in a male-dominated culture and political culture around here. And we believe that it's important to focus on problems of women, including violence against women."
The act, estimated to have dramatically reduced domestic violence, funds a broad range of training programs and aid for victims. It expired last year, and Schumer argued that letting it lapse longer will hamper progress that has been made.
"Before it passed and I was the House sponsor in 1994, women would routinely show up at police stations, bloody and beaten, and the police officers, not having any training or any ability to do anything, would say it's a domestic dispute, go home and solve it," Schumer said. "It needs to be renewed. It's been very successful."
If Senate floor action proceeds swiftly, the act could be brought up there next week. Schumer said the goal was to get it done before Congress takes its Easter break.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.