In VAWA Vote, Senate Overwhelmingly Passes Violence Against Women Act

Photo courtesy of Futures Without Violence
Photo courtesy of Futures Without Violence

WASHINGTON — The Senate easily passed its Violence Against Women Act reauthorization bill on Tuesday, officially punting the issue to the House, where Republican leaders still haven’t signaled how they plan to proceed.

The bill passed 78 to 22. It already had 62 cosponsors, which ensured its passage, but it picked up additional support from a handful of Republicans who weren’t already sponsoring it.

Senators who voted against the bill included Republicans John Barrasso (Wyo.), Roy Blunt (Mo.), John Boozman (Ark.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Cornyn (Texas), Ted Cruz (Texas), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Orrin Hatch (Utah), James Inhofe (Okla.), Mike Johanns (Neb.), Ron Johnson (Wisc.), Mike Lee (Utah), Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Jim Risch (Idaho), Pat Roberts (Kansas), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Jeff Thune (N.D.) and Tim Scott (S.C.).

Rubio will give the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address later Tuesday evening.

The bill authorizes $659 million over five years for VAWA programs. It also expands VAWA to include new protections for LGBT and Native American victims of domestic violence, to give more attention to sexual assault prevention and to help reduce a backlog in processing rape kits. Created in 1994, VAWA has helped to strengthen programs and services for victims of domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.

Ahead of the vote, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the bill’s sponsor, questioned why anybody would vote against his legislation since it just expands protections to vulnerable groups.

“It is difficult to understand why people would come in here and try to limit which victims could be helped by this legislation,” Leahy said. “If you’re the victim, you don’t want to think that a lot of us who have never faced this kind of problem, sat here in this body and said, ‘Well, we have to differentiate which victims America will protect.'”

Senators voted on a few amendments to the bill. They voted 93 to 5 to include a provision targeting human trafficking, and 100 to 0 on a provision to ensure child victims of sex trafficking are eligible for grant assistance. They rejected amendments by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to consolidate certain Department of Justice programs and to allow grants for sexually transmitted disease tests on sexual assault perpetrators.

VAWA typically gets reauthorized with little fanfare. But Congress failed to do so last year amid House Republican objections to provisions in the Senate bill that expanded protections for LGBT, Native American and undocumented immigrant victims of violence. This year’s Senate VAWA bill includes the LGBT and Native American provisions, but leaves out the piece for undocumented immigrants. Leahy has pledged to attach that piece to immigration reform legislation.

The onus is now on House Republican leaders to advance VAWA. They haven’t given any indication as to what their bill will look like or who will sponsor it, and even some in their own party are pressuring them to get moving. Seventeen House Republicans wrote to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Monday night urging them to “immediately” pass a bipartisan VAWA bill. They didn’t specifically endorse the Senate bill, however.

“Now is the time to seek bipartisan compromise on the reauthorization of these programs,” the letter reads. “VAWA programs save lives, and we must allow states and communities the opportunity to build upon the success of current VAWA programs so that we can help even more people.”

President Barack Obama later hailed the vote as a key step toward reducing homicides that stem from domestic violence and improving the criminal justice response to rape and sexual assault. He said House Republican leaders should pass the Senate bill and send it to him.

“This important step shows what we can do when we come together across party lines to take up a just cause,” Obama said in a statement. “It’s now time for the House to follow suit and send this bill to my desk so that I can sign it into law.”

Vice President Joe Biden, an original sponsor of the 1994 law, similarly praised the broad Senate vote and said the House needs to get moving.

“Delay isn’t an option when three women are still killed by their husbands or boyfriends every day. Delay isn’t an option when countless women still live in fear of abuse, and when one in five have been victims of rape,” Biden said in a statement. “This issue should be beyond debate — the House should follow the Senate’s lead and pass the Violence Against Women Act right away.”

This article, written by Jennifer Bendery, originally appeared in The Huffington Post on February 12, 2013.