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U.S. Senate poised to renew gay-inclusive domestic violence law

Thursday, February 7, 2013
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WASHINGTON — The Senate is poised to rewrite the federal government’s principal anti-domestic abuse law with new protections for gays, lesbians, immigrants and Native American women.

A vote to reauthorize the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, expected to come late Thursday or Friday, sets up a possible showdown with the House, which last year rejected the Senate’s more ambitious approach.

The Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, is credited with helping significantly reduce incidents of domestic violence over the past two decades. But the law expired in 2011 and Congress has since struggled to come up with a replacement version that would both extend the act and expand its reach. Last year, both chambers passed bills but the congressional session ended before differences could be resolved.

Democrats pounced on the failure to renew the law during the election campaign last fall, characterizing Republicans as unfriendly on women’s issues. In the wake of the elections, Republicans this year have seemed eager to get a bill passed quickly.

The bill, expected to easily pass the Senate, is largely the same as last year’s measure. It specifies that underserved communities, including those defined by sexual orientation and gender identity, should receive equal treatment under the act and it also improves protections for immigrant women subject to abusive or violent marriages.

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It strengthens the ability of tribal communities to prosecute non-Indians who assault Indian partners on tribal lands. Indian women are victims of domestic abuse at far higher rates than the national average, but their attackers often go unpunished because federal prosecutors don’t have the resources to pursue misdemeanor crimes on isolated reservations.

While some House Republicans last year questioned the Senate’s need to single out gays and lesbians as eligible for this protection, the main issue last year and again this year was that of tribal authority to try non-Indians.

The Senate bill would authorize $659 million over five years for the programs, down 17 percent from the last reauthorization in 2005. The bill also gives more emphasis to sexual assault prevention and takes steps to reduce the rape kit backlog.

It removes a provision that Republicans objected to last year that would have increased visas for immigrant victims of domestic violence.

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