In the final days of the 112th U.S. Congress—days marked by frantic brinkmanship to avoid the fiscal cliff—Capitol Hill let the Violence Against Women Act fall with a thud.
For the first time since the VAWA’s passage in 1994, Congress didn’t renew the protections and funding for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
“This is the first time there’s been a serious fight about it,” says Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. “There’s a lot of that in Washington these days.”
The VAWA provides the framework for funding domestic-violence and rape-crisis centers, along with prosecution of sex crimes. “These services are literally lifelines,” says Niki Terzieff, a lobbyist for the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
That money—$1.8 million annually for Oregon—won’t instantly disappear because the VAWA wasn’t reauthorized. But new protections remain uncertain. One of those would have targeted a national backlog of untested DNA rape kits. (Some states have thousands of untested rape kits. Oregon State Police say only 14 exist in the state—and only one older than 90 days.)
The VAWA’s non-renewal wasn’t an oversight. House Republicans led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) blocked the Senate-drafted renewal because of three new provisions. “We continue to work with VAWA advocates on the best path forward to ensure we protect victims, prosecute offenders and put an end to violence against women,” Cantor spokeswoman Megan Whittemore tells WW.
As Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) prepares for another confrontation with the House beginning this week in the 113th Congress, here are the sticking points:
• Extending the VAWA’s protections to include domestic-violence victims who are lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
This provision is also included in the new Senate bill. House Republicans say it’s a Trojan horse for a gay-rights agenda.
“It would prohibit discrimination under [VAWA], including shelters,” says Maya Rupert, policy director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “It’s a crucially important protection.”
• Increasing the number of visas allotted for undocumented immigrants who petition for legal status because they are the victim of an abusive spouse or parent. GOP leaders said upping the number of “U visas” would invite fraud. The new Senate bill has dropped the provision.
• Allowing tribal courts on Native American lands to prosecute non-native men for sexual crimes against native women.
This law change would combat an epidemic of rapes on reservations. The U.S. Department of Justice says 86 percent of sex crimes against native women are committed by non-native men.
The changes would allow tribal police to investigate and make arrests, instead of merely detaining accused rapists and waiting for state police or the FBI to arrive.
“We have this long history of native women continuing to be victims of sexual assault, and nothing ever happens,” says Tawna Sanchez, director of family services at the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland.
News reports from December say Cantor blocked the provision on constitutional grounds. The provision is back in the new Senate bill.