WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans determined to show women voters that they have their interests at heart on Wednesday announced plans to renew the Violence Against Women Act, the federal government's main domestic violence program.
The GOP proposal set up a possible showdown with a somewhat different version that Senate Democrats have advanced and has been pending for several weeks. The Senate began debate Wednesday on the Democratic version as talks continued.
VAWA, first enacted in 1994, has a history of being bipartisan and noncontroversial, but that's changed this election year. Democrats have accused Republicans of waging a war on women, and Republicans, led by presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney, have responded by emphasizing their sensitivity to women's issues.
The Senate bill has 61 sponsors, including eight Republicans, but parts of it have met resistance from others in the GOP.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, joined by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, is preparing an alternative that would alter several Democratic provisions. Their alternative would cap visas available to legal and illegal immigrants who suffer abuse at 10,000 a year, compared to 15,000 proposed by the Democratic bill offered by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. It does not specify, as the Democratic bill does, that violence against gays, lesbians and transgenders are part of the act. The Leahy bill expands the authority of Native American officials to handle cases of abuse of Indian women by non-Indians. The Republican substitute permits tribal authorities to go to federal court for protective orders on behalf of abused Native American women.
The base Senate bill would reauthorize VAWA for five years with funding of $659.3 million a year, down $136.5 million a year from the last VAWA act, which expired several months ago. The money goes to such programs as legal assistance for victims, enforcement of protection orders, transitional housing aid and youth prevention programs.
Sponsors of the House bill, which is still being drafted, said it would be close to the Grassley-Hutchison approach. It was introduced by 12 GOP women lawmakers and three members of the Republican leadership, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.
"We are not going to be looking at the controversial issues that would actually detract from VAWA," said Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Fla., the chief sponsor.
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said that "unfortunately, in Congress there are some who'd like to make this a political play. They'd like to make a cheap shot and try to politicize it in an election year."
At an earlier news conference with a Native American woman who spoke of her experience with sexual abuse, Senate Democratic women also warned of the bill becoming a political football.
"Let us not put the country in jeopardy because the House wants to put forward a Republican-only bill," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
"These women don't deserve political theater," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. She said she hoped the House would act in a bipartisan way. "We want to make sure they don't move us backwards."
The Senate Democrats insisted that they had not sought to pick a political fight with provisions on illegal immigrants or Native Americans. Boxer said that no women had ever been excluded from assistance in past VAWA acts and their bill was simply making that clear.
Adams said the House bill also differed from the Senate version by increasing resources for sexual assault investigations, spending more to reduce the backlog in rape kits and assuring that more money goes to victim programs instead of to Washington offices. She said the House bill could reach the floor for a vote by mid-May.