WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats, bolstered by Republican support, on Monday launched a new attempt to broaden a law protecting women from domestic abuse by expanding its provisions to cover gays, lesbians and Native Americans.
The legislation to renew the Violence Against Women Act appeared on a smooth path toward passage in the Senate, possibly by the end of this week. Monday's vote to make the bill the next order of business was 85-8.
Senate passage would send the bill to the House. Advocates hope that Republicans, smarting from election losses among women voters in November, won't repeat their resistance last year to the Senate approach.
"Allowing partisan delays to put women's lives at risk is simply shameful," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said before the vote. He said he hoped convincing support for the legislation in the Senate would "send a strong message to House Republican leaders that further partisan delay is unacceptable."
House Republicans, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, say reauthorizing the 1994 act, which expired in 2011, is a priority. But resolving partisan differences remains an obstacle: last year both the House and Senate passed bills but the House would not go along with Senate provisions that single out gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders for protection and give tribal authorities more power to prosecute non-Indians who attack Indian partners on tribal lands.
Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said that after last year's election both parties are eager to demonstrate that they are behind a pro-woman agenda. She said her group, which supports the Senate bill, had received "very positive responses" from the offices of both Cantor and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the top-ranked Republican woman.
The Senate bill, while making minor concessions to meet GOP concerns, is essentially the same as the measure that passed that chamber last April on a 68-31 vote, with 15 Republicans voting yes. It focuses on ensuring that college students, immigrants, Native Americans and gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people have access to anti-abuse programs.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that since the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, was enacted in 1994 the annual incidence of domestic violence has fallen by more than 50 percent. "We have something here that's been a success. These are thousands of lives made immeasurably better," said Leahy, sponsor of the legislation with Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican supporter from Maine, said helping victims of violence "should never be a partisan issue." She said that in her state nearly half of homicides were linked to occurrences of domestic violence and 13,000 Maine residents would experience some form of sexual violence this year alone.
White House press secretary Jay Carney urged Congress to move rapidly on the legislation. "Three women a day are killed as a result of domestic violence and one in five have been raped in their lifetimes. We should be long past debate on the need for the Violence Against Women Act," he told reporters Monday.
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