Passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) should be among the top priorities of the lame-duck congressional session, say women's rights advocates who held a "National Day of Action" in support of the bill yesterday.
With President Barack Obama winning a second term last week, and Congress turning its attention away from the election cycle, groups pushing for reauthorization of VAWA—which expired in 2010 and has been in congressional limbo ever since—warn that without swift action the bill could face an uphill battle in the new Congress.
If VAWA doesn't pass in the next month, the bill would be starting at "square one" when Congress opens a new session next year, said said Shaina Goodman, policy director for the Public Policy Coordinator for the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
Some 30 congressional supporters of the bill will not be returning, either because of retirement of election losses. It is not clear if their replacements will support the expanded version of the VAWA legislation.
"Now is the time to get VAWA to the top of list," said Goodman.
The landmark VAWA legislation—the first recognition that domestic violence required a national response—received widespread bipartisan support since it was passed in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000 and 2005.
But despite early indications that it would be renewed easily, it became the focus of heated partisan quarrels in Congress.
After working with advocates, the Senate passed a more comprehensive version of the Violence Against Women Act (S. 1925) in April. Sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) the legislation included provisions for strengthening protections for the LGBT communities, immigrant crime programs, housing protections, and increased concurrent jurisdictions for native communities.
The expanded bill also provides enhanced protections for victims of sexual assault, improves safety on college campuses and strengthens housing protections.
On May 16, a House bill (H.R. 4970) narrowly passed by a vote of 222 to 205. The House version doesn't include any of the expanded protections. However, sponsors of the House bill say that their legislation supports domestic violence victims.
In a May statement, Representative Sandy Adams (R-Florida) said "Make no mistake about it; this is a victim-centered bill that is all inclusive. Just like past reauthorizations, the House-passed legislation is focused on all victims, without regard for race, ethnicity, sexual preference, or nationality. "
Although the Senate legislation is the VAWA version much favored by advocates and other supporters, that version has not gone to conference to reconcile the Senate and House versions of the bills, due to a legislative technicality called a "blue slip," which requires that all revenue-raising legislation must originate in the House.
But beyond the technical issue, widespread concern about federal spending and questions about the management of VAWA grant funds stopped the bill in its tracks.
The bill was dogged by persistent fraud accusations after audits conducted between 1998 and 2010 by the Justice Department's Inspector General found violations of grant requirements ranging from unauthorized and unallowable expenditures, to sloppy record keeping and failure to report in a timely manner.
But those claims were refuted by the Office on Violence Against Women. (For earlier The Crime Report stories on the reauthorization debate, see "VAWA at the Crossroads" and "VAWA Expansion Endangered by Split Senate Vote.")
But it is the Senate version of VAWA that truly includes the additional protections that are essential to the safety of women around the nation, say advocates and experts interviewed by The Crime Report.
"The tribal provisions put into the senate bill is the strongest movement in restoring some criminal jurisdiction in 30 years," said Jana Walker, a Senior Attorney at the Indian Law Resource Center, a national legal action resource center for tribal communities based in Montana. "If its (VAWA) not passed justice will not be restored to native women."
It has been 678 days since VAWA expired, and 128 days since the last Congressional Action, and just 31 days until the 2011 Congress adjourns.
But all is not lost.
President Obama and Vice President Biden have been strong supporters of legislation to reduce violence and support the Senate version of the bill. In fact, Obama repeatedly said he would veto the House bill if that VAWA version landed on his desk.
This stance, in part, turned women voters towards ushering in a second term for Obama.
Many Congressional Republicans have called on their leadership to move forward and reauthorize VAWA, and work around the legislative technicalities. There is strong support from Senator Leahy who has made reauthorization of VAWA one of his main priorities.
He has delivered a weekly floor statement to the Senate on the bill.
"It is time to make good on our promise to the victims of these horrible crimes," Leahy said Leahy in his September statement.
"Helping them— no matter who they are—must be our goal. Their lives depend on it, and they are waiting on us."
Cara Tabachnick is Managing Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.