A House vote to approve the Senate's version of legislation renewing the Violence Against Women Act would send the legislation to President Barack Obama for his signature and help burnish the GOP's image with women.
Before taking up the sweeping bill approved by the Senate two weeks ago, the House will vote on a more limited House Republican-written version. But with Democrats solidly behind the Senate bill and Republicans split over their own alternative, that version was likely to be rejected.
In contrast to the partisan divide in the House, the Senate passed the measure on a 78-22 vote, with all Democrats, all women senators and 23 of 45 Republicans supporting it. The Senate bill goes further than some Republicans like in clearly stating that the existing law should be expanded to protect lesbians, gays, immigrants and Native American Indians from abusive acts.
The GOP decision not to prolong the dispute over how best to extend the 1994 law came after the party's poor showing among women in last fall's election and Democratic success in framing the debate over the anti-violence law as Republican policy hostile to women. President Barack Obama won 55 percent of the women's vote last November. Republican presidential candidates haven't won the women's vote since 1984, when Ronald Reagan held a 12-point lead over Walter Mondale among women.
With House approval of the Senate bill, Obama will sign the reauthorization of the law that laid the foundation for federal efforts to better protect women, and some men, from domestic abuse and better prosecute the abusers.
The law expired in 2011, and has been stuck in political limbo as the House, up to now, has resisted Senate efforts to enlarge the scope of the legislation.
The legislation appeared headed for another impasse at the end of last week when the House introduced its version, which omitted references to sexual orientation and weakened Senate provisions giving Indian courts greater jurisdiction to try non-Indians accused of acts of domestic violence on tribal lands.
But on Tuesday House GOP leaders, apparently not wanting to add a war on women to the ongoing war over the budget, gave ground, agreeing that the House will vote on the Senate version if it first defeats the House proposal. With every Democrat and several dozen Republicans supporting the Senate bill, it is expected to prevail.
Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., said a letter he and 18 other House Republicans wrote to the GOP leadership, urging support of a bipartisan plan that would reach all victims of domestic violence, may have been the catalyst in ending the stalemate. A strong supporter of the law, Runyan said the most important thing was compromising and moving the legislation forward. "A lot of people around here have a hard time understanding that."
Another Republican backing the Senate approach was Tom Cole of Oklahoma, one of only three House members of Indian heritage and a strong proponent of giving Indian courts the right to prosecute non-Indian domestic violence suspects. He said that while the latest House bill, crafted by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., had made strides in addressing the Indian court issue, "it falls short of giving tribes what they need to keep their citizens protected from the scourge of domestic violence."
Indian women are victimized by domestic violence at rates more than double national averages, and federal prosecutors, lacking the resources to pursue cases on isolated reservations, prosecute only about half of the violent crimes. Opponents of the Senate bill say there are constitutional questions about Indian courts trying non-Indians.
The House bill quickly ran up against a wall of resistance, with the White House on Tuesday providing a list of supposed flaws. Those included inhibiting prosecutions by tribal authorities, removing Senate provisions that address the high rates of violence on college campuses, omitting a Senate provision reauthorizing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and not explicitly protecting LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) victims from discrimination when they seek services funded by the law.
The House bill also was opposed by major anti-violence and Native American groups, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said all Democrats were being urged to oppose it. "The groups that are excluded are the groups that are in most need of protection against violence," she said.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., who co-wrote the original 1994 law with former Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., said the law, which provides grants for legal assistance, transitional housing, law enforcement training and hotlines, has helped bring instances of domestic violence down by two-thirds over the past two decades. "Perhaps the greatest victory," she said, "is that the law finally brought millions of victims out of the shadows and gave them a place to stand."