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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 Backpage.com 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.

Acting Associate Attorney General for the Department of Justice Tony West told reporters that 76 percent of those living on reservations now are not American Indian. "Without an act of Congress, tribes cannot prosecute a non-Indian," even if they live on a reservation married to an Indian, he said.

The Leahy-Crapo bill "provides tribes with authority to hold perpetrators accountable" for crimes of domestic violence, sexual crimes, and violations of protection orders, West said. They would not be able to prosecute for a crime in which neither party had any ties to the tribe.

"We certainly think the Leahy-Crapo bill is consistent with our overall federal law enforcement scheme," he said.

The administration cited statistics showing that rates of domestic violence against Native American women are now among the highest in the United States.

"The bill builds on the Tribal Law and Order Act – which President Obama signed on July 29, 2010 – to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of tribal justice systems and will provide additional tools to tribal and Federal prosecutors to address domestic violence in Indian country," the Office of Management and Budget said this week.

Republican complaints against the VAWA, though, ranged from an overstepping of federal power to the requirements placed on funding to states.

“Everyone agrees that violence against women is reprehensible," Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said. "The Violence Against Women Act reauthorization has the honorable goal of assisting victims of domestic violence, but it oversteps the Constitution’s rightful limits on federal power, it interferes with the flexibility states and localities should have in tailoring programs to meet particular needs of individual communities, and it fails to address problems of duplication and inefficiency."

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) voted "no" on the Hutchison-Grassley language because of "strong concerns" about a provision that would require a minimum level of funds be allocated to sexual assault, which would "divert funding away from current domestic violence programs without evidence that the increased funding will result in enhanced prosecutions or additional cases reported."

Rubio voted against the Leahy-Crapo bill for the same reason. "Furthermore, it would give the Justice Department greater power in determining how funds are used at the state level, taking decision-making out of the hands of the state-based coalitions on the ground who know best about how to serve their communities," he said, adding that he wants reauthorization of VAWA as it is currently written and hopes to vote for the bill when it emerges from the House-Senate conference.

The House bill is expected to look similar to the Hutchison-Grassley version, and pass in a Republican-controlled chamber.

"There is only one real Violence Against Women Act authorization," Leahy said before the vote on that version. "This is not it."

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), vice chair of the House Republican Conference, and other GOP leaders announced yesterday that they were putting the finishing touches on their own reauthorization, to be introduced by House Judiciary Committee member and domestic violence survivor Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.).

“The Violence Against Women Act is a critical tool for stopping domestic violence and sexual assault, and supporting the victims of these crimes - and House Republicans believe it must be renewed,” McMorris Rodgers said. “This week, we are introducing a five-year reauthorization of this law and it’s our hope that it can be passed quickly in a bipartisan fashion – as it’s always been done in the past.”

When asked if President Obama would veto a House GOP version if it emerged from conference victorious, Jarrett said she wouldn't speculate on that.

The original VAWA was authored by then-Sen. Joe Biden, who hailed the upper chamber's passage of the reauthorization today.

"This law has been overwhelmingly successful since it was first enacted 17 years ago to improve the criminal justice response to this violent crime and to assist those who experience this abuse," Biden said. "Since then, the law has twice been reauthorized with the broad support of members of both parties. It should still be bigger than politics today."