Although lawmakers in Congress may have failed to break the sequestration stalemate before heading home for the weekend on February 28, they did manage to take final action on the long-delayed Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization. By a vote of 286 to 138, the House of Representatives voted to send the Senate-passed bill to the President’s desk. Eighty-seven Republicans joined 199 Democrats in voting for passage. The Senate approved its version on February 12, 78 to 22.
The legislation renews a 1994 law that expired in 2011. The original law, written by Vice President Joe Biden when he was a Democratic senator from Delaware, created a National Domestic Violence Hotline and authorized Federal funding for battered women’s shelters. Although many Republicans supported the law, some raised objections to provisions in the Senate bill providing protections relating to sexual orientation and immigrant status and giving tribal courts greater jurisdiction in domestic violence cases that take place on tribal lands.
The provisions relating to the jurisdiction of tribal courts were among the most contentious. Tribal justice systems are limited from prosecuting non-Native criminals; yet most domestic violence crimes that take place against women on tribal lands (88 percent) are committed by non-Native Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Opponents of the provisions argued that non-Natives Americans accused of such crimes could be denied their rights under the U.S. Constitution.
Before voting on the Senate measure, the House took up its own version of the bill that did not extend the law’s provisions to previously unprotected groups. That bill was rejected by a vote of 166 to 257.
Reacting to the bill’s passage, President Obama said, “Over more than two decades, this law has saved countless lives and transformed the way we treat victims of abuse. Today’s vote will go even further by continuing to reduce domestic violence, improving how we treat victims of rape, and extending protections to Native American women and members of the LGBT community.”
For more background on VAWA, see the June 2012 issue of Congressional Digest, “Violence Against Women,” and the April 2000 issue of Supreme Court Debates, “Violence Against Women (2000).”