WASHINGTON — Congressional lawmakers from both political parties agree, and so does the White House: It’s important to renew the Violence Against Women Act, an 18-year-old law that pours resources into efforts to help victims of domestic violence. But there are sharp disagreements about exactly what the new law should include, arguments that illustrate how election-year politics has colored consideration of a law that usually gets enthusiastic bipartisan support.
After weeks of partisan battling, the Senate voted 68-31 on Thursday to renew the act for five years. It now goes to the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, which is preparing its own somewhat different version.
There’s little disagreement over the need to renew the basic law. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey released last year found that 24 people per minute in the U.S. are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by intimate partners. The bill provides funding to law enforcement, victims advocates and states to help reduce domestic violence and increase reporting of it.
It would renew the act for five years, and would authorize spending of $659.3 million annually, down $136.5 million a year. New features include tougher measures to help victims of sexual assault, improved emergency housing services for victims and consolidation of some grant programs to make them more efficient.
The Senate bill, sponsored by all the chamber’s Democrats as well as two independents and eight Republicans, would encourage undocumented immigrants to come forward and help law enforcement identify victims. It would establish easier-to-understand non-discrimination provisions to assure protection for gays and transgender people, among others. It also would give tribal courts more authority to prosecute incidents of domestic violence in Native American territory.
Conservative Republicans saw such provisions as little more than Democratic efforts to play politics, and argued that many of the controversial parts were unnecessary. “The bill protects everyone. Victim services are for everyone,” said Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Fla., who’s leading the House effort to renew the law.
Democrats just wanted to embarrass Republicans, charged Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. “This is cynical partisan game-playing that Americans are sick of,” he said.
Supporters say the measure addresses pressing needs in “communities with difficulty accessing traditional services.” A Senate Judiciary Committee report on the bill, written by the majority, cites a 2010 survey by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs that found that 45 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered victims were turned away when they sought help.
Such data, as well as other studies, “reinforce the reality that … there is a significant need for services for victims of domestic and sexual violence who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender,” the report said.
The House version of the bill, likely to be considered next month, is expected to be similar to the Senate version but without the more controversial add-on provisions.
Congress plans to leave Friday for a 10-day recess, when Democrats will go home and claim that GOP lawmakers once again are showing they’re not sensitive to women’s concerns _ one of the Democrats’ key attack lines this election year.
“We are not creating a war on this bill. We are questioning why anyone else will,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Nonsense, Grassley said. “They didn’t want it to pass with an overwhelming bipartisan majority,” he said.
Democrats have been building strong support with women this year, particularly since a flare-up last month over a White House plan to have most employers offer insurance coverage for women’s contraceptives. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll April 13-17 found that people thought by 49-21 percent that President Barack Obama was better able than Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, to deal with issues of concern to women.
“It’s clear Democrats believe there’s an opportunity to continue to drive a wedge between women and the Republican Party,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “It’s going to fire up the base. Democrats can raise money off of this.”
But, he warned, Democrats also risk going too far. “To say Republicans are for violence against women is an unbelievable claim,” Gonzales said.
Republicans say Democrats have politicized an issue that traditionally hasn’t been a political beanbag.
Democrats have “performed the seemingly impossible feat of turning legislation that has enjoyed widespread, bipartisan support over many years into yet another bill that was reported on a party-line vote,” four GOP senators wrote in the minority portion of the Judiciary Committee’s report on the bill.
“Of course, we agree that shelters and other grant recipients should provide services equally to everyone. This provision, however, is a solution in search of a problem,” they wrote. “Instead, it appears to be only a political statement that should not be made on a bill that is designed to address actual needs of victims.”
Many Republicans don’t want this battle. “There’s no reason to have a fight over something nobody wants to have a fight over,” said Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.