Congress appeared on a course to renew the expired Violence Against Women Act after House Republican leaders on Tuesday agreed to take up a version of the 1994 anti-domestic violence law that passed the Senate two weeks ago by a wide, bipartisan margin.
The decision to allow a vote on the Senate bill, rather than insist on the House GOP's more limited version, could help avoid a bitter partisan fight over an issue important to women at a time that Congress is already embroiled in an unbecoming political standoff over budgetary issues.
The House Rules Committee decided that the House on Wednesday will take up the Senate bill. The House alternative will be offered as an amendment and, if that is defeated, the House will then vote to pass the Senate measure, sending it to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The Senate bill expands the law, which expired in 2011, to better protect lesbians and gays, immigrants and Native American women. House Republicans introduced a more limited bill this week, setting off cries of protest from Democrats, the White House, women's advocacy groups and some Republicans who said it was inadequate to meet the needs of anti-domestic abuse programs.
House Democrats said Tuesday that no one in their caucus would support the Republican bill, meaning that the opposition of a small number of Republicans could spell its defeat.
A similar scenario played out last year when the Senate passed a more ambitious bill by a wide, bipartisan margin and the House took a different course with a largely partisan bill. The year ended without a compromise and with Democrats making election-year claims that GOP actions on the bill exposed the party's lack of commitment to women's issues.
The Violence Against Women Act is regarded as the foundation of efforts over the past two decades to make the country more aware of the serious nature of domestic violence and to take steps to both prevent violence and better prosecute those who assault their domestic partners. The law provides grants to states and local governments for transitional housing, hotlines, law enforcement training and legal assistance.
The Senate bill explicitly extends more protections to lesbians and gays and immigrants and gives tribal authorities more power to prosecute non-Indians who assault Indians on reservations. It also has provisions regarding college campus safety and reducing the backlog of rape kit analyses and reauthorizes legislation dealing with human trafficking.
A major point of dispute was over the Indian courts. Native American women are assaulted at rates far higher than national averages, and more than half of cases involving non-Indians go unprosecuted because Indian courts do not have jurisdiction and federal prosecutors often do not have the resources to try cases on isolated reservations.
Some Republicans contended that subjecting non-Indians to Indian courts was unconstitutional.
The bill passed the Senate two weeks ago on a 78-22 vote, with every Democrat, every woman senator and 23 out of 45 Republicans voting for it.