President Barack Obama is signing into law a bill extending and expanding domestic violence protections, ushering in a legislative victory for gay rights advocates and Native Americans.
Flanked by domestic-violence survivors, lawmakers, law enforcement officers and tribal leaders, Obama was signing the extension to the Violence Against Women Act in a ceremony Thursday at the Interior Department, which overseas programs for Native Americans. A key provision of the expanded law strengthens protections for victims who are attacked on tribal land.
Vice President Joe Biden, who as a senator wrote and sponsored the original bill in 1994, was also scheduled to speak at the ceremony.
The law strengthens the criminal justice system's response to crimes against women. White House press secretary Jay Carney called the extension "a very important milestone" that would give law enforcement new tools to respond to domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.
Although the law was renewed twice in the past with little resistance, it lapsed in 2011 when Republicans and Democrats couldn't agree on a bill to renew it.
The Republican-controlled House rejected a Senate-passed version making clear that lesbians, gays and immigrants should have equal access to the law's programs. The Senate bill also allowed tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians who attack their Indian partners on tribal lands, giving Native American authorities the ability to go after crimes that federal prosecutors, for lack of resources, often decline to pursue.
In February, House Republicans capitulated and allowed a vote on an almost identical version of the bill. It passed 286-138. It was the third time in two months that House Speaker John Boehner let a Democratic-supported bill reach the floor despite opposition from a majority of his own party — a clear sign that Republicans wanted to put the issue behind them after performing poorly among women in November's election.
The Violence Against Women Act has set the standard for how to protect women, and some men, from domestic abuse and prosecute abusers and is credited with helping reduce domestic violence incidents by two-thirds since its inception in 1994.
The renewal authorizes some $659 million a year over five years to fund current programs that provide grants for transitional housing, legal assistance, law enforcement training and hotlines. It reauthorizes the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, adds stalking to the list of crimes that make immigrants eligible for protection, and authorizes programs dealing with sexual assault on college campuses and rape investigations.