Politics vs. Policy: Violence Against Women Act Dustup in Senate

PHOTO: Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ak. and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tx., attend a news conference March 15, 2012.

Republican aides emphasize that their bosses are not against the Violence Against Women Act, originally passed in 1994 and reauthorized at least twice by Congress. But the new version of the bill, they say, is a "drastic expansion" of parts of the law as it was negotiated by the Senate Judiciary Committee this year.

The disagreement has forced Republican senators into a political corner on an issue in which they believe they're right about the policy. But their opposition to the tweaks and updates to the bill is what has garnered much attention, especially in the context of what's been called a war on women. A Republican aide said the Democratic changes to the bill, "deliberately contain unserious legal provisions on issues such as immigration designed to create the false appearance of obstruction."

Six Democratic female senators took to the floor Thursday to push for the domestic violence bill, a coordinated effort to gain momentum and shine the spotlight on the reauthorization that's still pending.

"I was stunned by this vote because never before had there been any controversy in all of more than a decade and a half, in all of this time about this bill," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said on the Senate floor Thursday morning. "This act is the centerpiece of the federal government's effort to combat domestic violence and sexual assault. And it has actually [had positive impacts] on the response to these crimes at the local, state and federal level."

A Republican Senate aide said this reauthorization had "more changes than normal" compared to reauthorizations past, but characterized the Republican opposition to parts of it as "nothing out of the ordinary," given that legislation is constantly updated and worked on to become better.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R- Alaska, took to the floor after the Democratic women's back-to-back speeches to throw a little cold water on the Republican opposition, emphasizing the bipartisan support to the bill itself.

"I, too, believe that the Senate needs to take up the Violence Against Women Act, but I do feel strongly that we need to do it on a bipartisan basis," Murkowski said. "I know some of my colleagues have some concerns, and if I have said that we need to take these concerns into account so that we can have ... an overwhelming bipartisan bill. This is too important an issue for women and men and families that we not address it."

Senate Democrats hope that Republicans can stomach the parts they don't like for the sake of the whole bill.

Republicans point the finger at Democrats for wanting to fast-track the bill through the Senate, despite Republican objections to parts of the legislation. Rather than working to make changes, Republicans said, Democrats want to hold the imperfect bill to a vote now, which would force Republicans to block the bill.

"It's a shame that the majority party is manufacturing another partisan, political crisis," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said. "No doubt we need to consider the Violence Against Women Act at the appropriate time, but there must be a fair process that includes consideration of our alternative that ensures more money goes to victims rather than bureaucrats, and helps root out more of the well-documented fraud in the program. The Republican leadership has no intention of blocking fair consideration of this bill."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., hopes to get to the bill by the end of the month, aides say.

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