WASHINGTON (AP) — By a robust bipartisan majority, the Senate voted Tuesday to renew the Violence Against Women Act with new assurances that gays and lesbians, immigrants and Native American women will have equal access to the act's anti-domestic violence programs.
The 78-22 Senate vote to reauthorize the two-decade-old act that has shielded millions of women from abuse and helped reduce national rates of domestic violence turns the focus to the House, where Republican leaders are working to come up with their own version.
"Over 160 million women across the country are watching and waiting to see if the House will act on this bill and finally provide them the protections from violence they deserve," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
The act expired in 2011, putting efforts to improve its many federal programs on hold. Last year both the Republican-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate passed renewal bills, but they were unable to reach a compromise.
This year House Republicans, sensitive to their lackluster showing among women voters in the November election, have vowed to move expeditiously on the issue. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has taken the lead in negotiating the terms of a House bill.
On Monday 17 House Republicans wrote Cantor and Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, urging immediate action. The act's "programs save lies, and we must allow states and communities to build upon the successes of current VAWA programs so that we can help even more people," they wrote.
The Senate bill, while promoted by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and other Democrats, is cosponsored by a Republican, Mike Crapo of Idaho, and garnered 23 Republican votes. All 20 women members of the Senate voted for the bill.
President Barack Obama, in a statement, praised the Senate for working across party lines to pass the bill and said: "the bill passed by the Senate will help reduce homicides that occur from domestic violence, improve the criminal justice response to rape and sexual assault, address the high rates of dating violence experienced by young women, and provide justice to the most vulnerable among us."
During debate, the major divisive issue was a provision that allows tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians accused of assaulting Indian women on reservations. Republicans, arguing that subjecting non-Indians to Indian courts was unconstitutional, offered two amendments to strip that section from the bill, but both were defeated.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs the Indian Affairs Committee, said Indian women are raped and assaulted at 2½ times the national rate, and less than 50 percent of domestic violence cases on reservations, often far from federal courts, are prosecuted. "This is about the life and death of women who need a better system to help prosecute those who are committing serious crimes against them."