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.

The Act itself, first passed 18 years ago, is in its essence uncontroversial, reauthorized twice with bipartisan support each time. The Act was last reauthorized in 2006, for five years.

Republicans have problems with this year's authorization in four areas, none of which deal directly with violence against women per se.

First, there is concern that under the new bill thousands of additional visas would be issued.

A U visa is given to victims of certain crimes for temporary legal status and work eligibility in the United States, and some believe the updated law would increase the annual number of U visas.

"Visa numbers should not be increased without also addressing the fraud and making sure the finite number of visas available go to people that truly deserve them," a Republican aide said.

Second, Republicans fear the updated bill fails to address immigration fraud.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard from witnesses at a July hearing about how foreign nationals prey on U.S. citizens to get a green card.

For example, witnesses explained that after saying "I do," the foreign national lodged false allegations, sometimes of physical abuse, to get out of the marriage, collect alimony and secure a green card. Witnesses said that their side of the story was never heard, because the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services handles all these green card applications at one remote service center that relies exclusively on paper; neither the the allegedly abused foreign national nor the accused citizen is interviewed.

Third, Republicans say the reauthorization grants authority to Indian tribal courts to bring criminal cases against non-Indians for the first time if the cases involve domestic violence. The committee has held no hearing exploring the ramifications of such a change on law enforcement operations or the ramifications on non-Indians, so Republicans do not believe that this should be included at this time in the reauthorization.

Fourth, Republicans say the bill does not sufficiently hold accountable grantees of the Violence Against Women Act for taxpayer dollars. They say that the Government Accountability Office has consistently found that the dollars are not tracked adequately enough to show results and effectiveness of the Violence Against Women Act programs, and that the inspector general has found money has been misused to the detriment of victims. Republicans want more oversight.

But Democrats say opposing the current version of the bill is equal to opposing the bill.

"It certainly shouldn't be controversial," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said on the Senate floor. "This one shouldn't be about politics. Protecting women against violence shouldn't be a partisan issue."

Republicans said they are not against the bill, but like any reauthorization, they want to reserve the right to take issue with the bill's new provisions.

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