Senators and congressmen typically tout their legislation as the miracle cure for society's problem du jour.

Pass my bill to reform welfare . . . reduce the deficit . . . fight drugs, the politicians plead, and the problem will vanish. Too often, though, when the bill passes, nothing changes.Sen. Joseph Biden Jr., D-Del., takes a different approach. The chairman of the Judiciary Committee freely concedes that his Violence Against Women Act won't end wife-beating or rape. But he hopes it will make men - and women - rethink what's acceptable behavior.

"It's to stop what you see in public when a man wants to go one way and the woman another and he'll grab, twist an arm or squeeze," Biden said during a hearing.

Passing it will send a clear message to men "why it's so wrong to grab and shake," he said.

It may seem hard to believe that such a message is necessary in the United States in the 1990s. But the Judiciary Committee has heard ample testimony about the prevalence of violent crimes against women and the inadequacies of the criminal justice system. The committee staff reported that rape is epidemic nationwide and worsening.

The number of rapes reported to U.S. authorities last year exceeded 100,000, the most ever. Women were twice as likely to have been raped last year than in 1970. Rape was four times more likely than in 1960.

These statistics are only part of the story. Rape remains the least reported crime, authorities say. It's estimated that of every 100 rapes, only seven victims go to the police.

Ironically, as women make progress toward equality on the job, they're finding their after-work lives increasingly curtailed because of fear of crime.

Three of four women surveyed recently said they never go out alone at night to see a movie because they fear rape and other violent crimes, Biden said.

Women are nine times more likely than men not to walk in their own neighborhoods after dark. About half the women surveyed said they never use public transportation after dark.

Biden hopes to change this "climate of fear." His bill would double the penalties for rapists and authorize spending $500 million more annually on police, prosecutors, public lighting and rape prevention programs.

The bill's most intriguing provision would expand civil rights laws to cover gender-motivated crimes of violence. Victims would be permitted to sue for damages.

The bill got through committee last year but was lost during budget negotiations at the end of the year. Even if the bill makes it through Congress this year, the Bush administration opposes it. The Justice Department sent an eight-page letter of objections.

"Providing a federal cause of action against the rapist . . . is not likely to be an effective deterrent, as you candidly acknowledged," the letter to Biden states. It quotes him saying, "I hear commentators on television and the press saying, `Well, will this stop violence against women by making it a civil rights violation?' The answer is no. That is not my intention. My intention . . . is to change the nation's attitude."

Some efforts are under way to change attitudes.

In Iowa, the state is putting up billboards warning that "Battering Women is a Crime."

Bonnie Campbell, Iowa's attorney general, said, "It's now a new day and it's no longer appropriate to beat wives."