Violence Against Women Act Imperiled

June 7, 2012 in Politics, Top News, Women

From left: Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA, talk to reporters about reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Source: AP

From left: Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA, talk to reporters about reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Source: AP.

This year’s reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) hinges on getting the U.S. Senate and House into conference to iron out several key differences in coverage of the law’s protections. The Act gives tools to law enforcement agencies to prosecute and convict perpetrators of violent crimes, and to assist victims with protection and support. Senate and House differ in several respects:

The Democrat-sponsored Senate version explicitly includes gay and transgender protection for Americans, while the House version is gender neutral. Republicans contend that their measure implicitly allows all Americans to receive protection, not specifying otherwise. Democrats claim that local authorities could use the lack of specificity to deny coverage of gay or transgender people.

The House version also does not allow Native American women to take American citizens who abuse them to court within their tribal legal system. Republicans propose instead to allow Native American women to apply for protection orders from local U.S. courts. Democrats claim that without the Senate wording, Native American women abused on an Indian reservation will lack effective legal recourse.

Furthermore, the Senate bill includes a path to citizenship for illegal women who have been abused and agree to cooperate with police investigations, and increases the cap on temporary visas offered to such women. Democrats say that women fearing deportation may never come forward to take abusers off the street under the House bill. Republicans object that the citizenship provision is akin to amnesty.

Now House leadership is poised to knock-out the Senate version using an obscure Constitutional clause. Per the Origination Clause of the United States Constitution (Article I, Section 7, Clause 1), any bill for raising revenue must originate in the House. This provision was intended originally to guarantee that any taxes passed by Congress must come from the house which most directly represents the local populace, i.e. the House of Representatives. Republicans are interpreting that to apply here, because the Senate version involves a visa fee pertinent to coverage for illegal immigrant women.

In more collegial times, this would just be a glitch that legislators would find a way to bypass. However, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could delay or outright block any Senate Democrat attempts to re-legislate a Senate bill, deferring to House Speaker John Boehner. Right now the Senate bill is on ice because of the “blue slip” problem. Blue-slipping is done by order of the House to enforce its authority as the sole body to introduce legislation on revenue or appropriations. When the House fails to consider such legislation, that means it cannot become law.

On April 26, 2012, the Senate passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2011 (S. 1925), reauthorizing the Act of 1994 (reauthorized in 2000 and 2005). Senate passage of the Act was strong, at 68 Yes to 31 Nay votes. Support and opposition to the Act were largely partisan and gender-specific. All 31 Nay votes were cast by Republican male Senators, (A small number of Republican male Senators voted Aye.) All five female Republican Senators voted Aye on the extension. All Democratic Senators voted Aye. The House bill came to vote on May 16, sans expanded Senate coverage, and passed 222-205. There were 23 Republicans in opposition and six Democrats in support.

VAWA has enjoyed easy passage in previous reauthorizations yet the odds of continuing good legislation diminish each year due to partisan infighting. Republicans have accused Democrats of using the bill to back their claim that Republicans were waging a “War on Women.” At the same time, the White House has issued its own veto threat against the House version. It appears that VAWA may end up hijacked by a partisan unwillingness to compromise.