Senate approves domestic violence legislation

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The Senate today approved a new law aimed at protecting victims of domestic violence, approving the most recent iteration of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in a vote of 78-22.

The law was originally passed in 1994 as part of a larger crime bill, and has been reauthorized twice since then. But 2011 efforts to again extend the law failed, amid Republican concerns about expanded protections for undocumented immigrants and same-sex couples, and no similar legislation has made it through Congress since.

In a statement released following the bill's passage, President Obama lauded the "strong bipartisan bill," which he said "shows what we can do when we come together across party lines to take up a just cause."

"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," Mr. Obama said. "It's now time for the House to follow suit and send this bill to my desk so that I can sign it into law."

The newest version of the bill, which passed through the Senate today with bipartisan support, was crafted with an eye toward minimizing some of the GOP dissent that has derailed its prospects in the path: While the bill upholds protections for LGBT and undocumented victims, it stripped an expansion of the U visa program, which would give legal protection to illegal immigrants who are victims of domestic violence and sexual crimes.

Despite the bill's overwhelming support in the Senate, however, it faces uncertain prospects in the House of Representatives, because of Republicans' ongoing concerns about a provision that would enable the prosecution in tribal courts of attackers who are not of American Indian descent. Some Republicans have objected to this provision on the grounds that it expands the reach of tribal court power, and while the New York Times reported last week that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is trying to work out a compromise on the matter, there has been no word of any progress.

According to Doug Heye, Cantor's deputy chief of staff, "We continue to work with VAWA advocates and the Senate to reach agreement as quickly as possible."

Heye quickly pointed the finger at Democrats, however, arguing they turned their backs on a House-passed version of the bill last year. That version excluded some protections for undocumented immigrants and did not specify that the law must include gay, lesbian and transgender victims, as the Democratic version had done. It also excluded the current provision regarding American Indian jurisdiction currently under debate.

"We had reached agreement on some issues last Congress, only to have Senate Democrats walk away from those agreements, making it clear that for some making political attacks is more important than approval legislation to protect all women," he said. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), meanwhile, is targeting Cantor for allegedly "holding VAWA hostage."

"Cantor allowed VAWA to lapse last year and still hasn't brought it up for a vote this year," DCCC Executive Director Kelly Ward wrote last weekend in an email to supporters. "Denying legal protections to victims of domestic abuse is certainly not 'caring.'"

Jill Jackson contributed to this report.