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Violence Against Women Act sails through Senate

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(CBS News) In a rare election-year moment of bipartisanship, the Senate passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) on Thursday afternoon, legislation that gives women protections and recourse against violence and abuse.

The bill passed with bipartisan support by a vote of 68 - 31. The vote was to reauthorize the measure, which first passed in 1994 and is credited with a 51 percent increase of victims reporting domestic abuse, for five years.

VAWA provides services for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. It also locks in money for testing roughly 400,000 rape kits that, according to Human Rights Watch, have gone untested.

In addition, the Senate-passed measure provides protections for gay, lesbian and transgender couples, provides visas for undocumented immigrants who have been victims of abuse, and provides new authority for Native Americans officials in cases of abuse of Native American women by non-Native Americans. Republicans sought but failed to weaken these provisions through the amendment process.

Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, co-sponsor of the bill, defended the expanded protections.

"A victim is a victim is a victim. They all deserve our attention and the protection and access to services our bill provides," Leahy said.

The Senate action comes before senators head out of Washington for a week-long recess. The House of Representatives must still act for the bill to go to the president's desk. Female Republican House lawmakers held a news conference Wednesday announcing their version of the bill, which excludes protections for some groups.

"Our goal when we looked at this legislation...was to continue on the priorities that the original legislation did in 1994," Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) said Wednesday.

The House Republican bill would increase prison sentences and penalties for convicted stalkers and perpetrators. The House is expected to take up its version the week of May 14. Two two versions of the bill would need to be reconciled before a final bill can be sent to the president.

Additional reporting by John Nolen

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