Critics say gays, Native Americans, immigrants unprotected in House's domestic violence bill

Unfazed by a White House veto threat, the House of Representatives on Wednesday approved anti-domestic violence legislation that opponents charge doesn’t sufficiently protect gay, lesbian, transgender people, Native Americans and immigrants.

On a 222-205 vote, the House passed a GOP-sponsored bill to renew the Violence Against Women Act, an 18-year-old law written by then-Sen. Joe Biden that dedicates federal resources to assist victims of domestic violence.

Wednesday’s vote puts the House at odds once again with the Democratic-controlled Senate, which approved its version of the bill last month on a bipartisan 68-31 vote. The Senate bill renews the act for five years, authorizes $659.3 million in annual spending and contains measures to help victims of sexual assault, improve emergency housing services for victims and consolidate some grant programs to make them more efficient.

It also contains provisions intended to: encourage undocumented immigrants to help law enforcement identify domestic abuse victims; assure protections for gays, lesbians and transgender people, among others; and give tribal courts increased authority to prosecute incidents of domestic violence committed by non-Native Americans in Native American territories.

While both political parties and both chambers of Congress agree on the need for the act – a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study last year found that 24 people per minute in this country are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by intimate partners – they vastly disagree over what it should include and whom it should protect.

The House bill provides the same level of funding as the Senate measure but excludes some of the specific domestic-violence protections for gays, immigrants and Native Americans that are in the Senate measure.

Those exclusions prompted opposition from hundreds of civil rights, religious and law enforcement groups, including the National Organization for Women, the American Bar Association, the Episcopal Church and the YWCA USA.

“During my first term in Congress nearly two decades ago, I proudly voted for the Violence Against Women Act. It saddens me that now, in my last term, my Republican colleagues are determined to water down and undermine this landmark legislation,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif. “But as we’ve seen many times, the majority likes playing politics with women’s health and safety. And because they rarely miss an opportunity to exclude LGBT Americans from important rights and benefits . . . they’re saying that, if you’re a woman who’s in a relationship with another woman, then you don’t deserve the same protection against domestic abuse or sexual assault.”

The House bill also left some moderate Republicans feeling uneasy. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, joined 12 Democratic female senators Wednesday in sending a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that urged him to pass the Senate version of the bill.

“We should not let politics pick and choose which victims of abuse to help and which to ignore,” the letter read. “Each previous reauthorization substantially improved the way VAWA addressed the changing needs of domestic violence victims by addressing challenges facing older victims, victims with disabilities and underserved groups.”

But Republicans charged that it was Democrats who were playing election-year politics with the domestic violence issue, to help bolster their argument that the Republican Party is waging a war on women’s rights.

The White House has threatened to veto the House legislation, and it urged Republicans to “join with the Senate in passing a bipartisan VAWA reauthorization bill that protects all victims.”

“Republican men and women both abhor violence against women,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C, who supported the House version. “In fact, I would say we are more concerned about violence against women, because we want to see those women served better and we want to see the money spent better. . . . We are strengthening the Violence Against Women Act, not weakening the act.”

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, defended the House-passed version. He said the bill “doesn’t include language to provide special protective status to certain categories of people because they are already covered under VAWA.” He added that the GOP version doesn’t allow Native American tribes to prosecute non-Native Americans because it’s unconstitutional.

The Republican bill was endorsed by the National Coalition for Men, whose argument in support of the legislation appeared to undercut the GOP claim that the Violence Against Women Act’s language is so broad that it already covers almost all groups.

In a letter to lawmakers, the men’s rights group said the bill’s opponents “loudly assert that VAWA serves all people, which is absurd given the name of the Act.”

“Opposing versions, by omission and lack of specificity, generally exclude men, particularly heterosexual men, regardless of specious arguments to the contrary,” the letter read.

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