Next 'War on Women' Showdown Looms Over VAWA Reauthorization

The Senate passed a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act today, rejecting a Republican alternative and setting up a conference showdown just as Democrats are charging the GOP in an election year with waging a "war on women."

With 61 co-sponsors in the upper chamber going into the vote, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.), it was a given that the reauthorization, crafted by Sens. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), would eventually pass.

But the extension until 2016 didn't slide through 68-31 this afternoon without a good deal of controversy.

Three amendments that needed to cross the 60-vote threshold failed before the final vote on the bill. The first two were variations of a push to increase funding for processing of backlogged rape kits. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's (D-Minn.) version failed 57-41, and Sen. John Cornyn's (R-Texas) was shot down 50-48.

Cornyn's amendment also called for to remove parts of the website linked to child sex trafficking and required that 75 percent of funds be spent on clearing the massive backlog of untested kits.

After Klobuchar's amendment failed, Cornyn said on the Senate floor that his variation was his colleagues' "last chance" to correct a wrong that's "nothing short of a scandal."

Of his language that would have established a sexual forensic registry, he said, "If you don't catch them early, more people are going to get hurt."

The third amendment was the Republican alternative to the VAWA reauthorization, offered by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). It struck language that singled out protection of gays, lesbians and transgenders, lowered the number of visas for legal and illegal immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse from the Democrats' 15,000 cap to 10,000 a year, and offered a federal court alternative to the Democrats' plan to let tribal court systems try non-Indian abusers.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) slammed the GOP version for replacing the word "women" with "victim," saying it "negates centuries of violence against women," violence that wasn't always illegal.

"It was this unique and shameful history we responded to in 1994 when we crafted the Violence Against Women Act," he said during floor debate. "The Violence Against Women Act should be low-hanging fruit even in a disputatious Congress. You wouldn't think there would be opposition but unfortunately there has been."

Hutchison defended her bill, which also included mandatory sentencing guidelines for crimes ranging from possession of child pornography to aggravated sexual assault by means of rendering the victim unconscious, as being tougher than the Leahy-Crapo version.

"Our substitute improves on the underlying bill," Hutchison said on the floor. "…No one is arguing that we shouldn't pass a Violence Against Women Act; the question is, can we do it even better?"

Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett helmed a White House call with reporters this morning to push passage of the amendment and to highlight the Department of Justice stand on the American Indian provision.

She slammed the Hutchison-Grassley version for substituting "gender-neutral language" and putting a lower cap on the immigrant visas. "We think it take us backwards and leaves too many victims without protection," Jarrett said.

The Hutchison-Grassley language drew upon a Congressional Research Service memo that outlined a number of constitutional concerns regarding the extension of tribal court jurisdiction to non-Indian members.

Last week, Grassley said that their version addressed "significant waste, ineligible expenditures, immigration fraud and possible unconstitutional provisions" in the Leahy-Crapo bill.

Democratic senators pushing the provision said that U.S. Attorneys currently decline to prosecute a majority of violent crimes that occur in Indian country, including an overwhelming amount of sexual abuse related cases.

"The jurisdictional gap keeps us from holding non-Indian men accountable," Jarrett said.