WASHINGTON – A broad reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act is set to become law, now that the House on Thursday approved a measure that includes controversial protections for Native Americans and gays that many Republicans opposed.
The bill’s passage is good news to groups such as Catholic Charities of Buffalo that depend on funding from the bill to support their programs that deal with domestic violence, and to the Seneca Nation of Indians, which will gain the right under the law to prosecute white men who abuse Native American women on tribal land.
Given that the Senate passed the bill earlier in the month, House passage means the measure now moves on to President Obama, who said he plans on “signing it into law as soon as it hits my desk.”
An unusual coalition of 286 members – 199 Democrats and 87 Republicans – pushed the bill to passage in the GOP-controlled House. A total of 138 members, all Republicans, voted no.
All of Western New York’s House members supported passage of the measure, including Reps. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, and Tom Reed, R-Corning, although Reed missed the votes on the measure because he was ill Thursday.
“Helping to protect women from violence should not be a matter of debate in Washington,” said Collins, who announced his support for the broad measure earlier in the week.
The bill provides funding for training for law enforcement, as well as for social service organizations that run programs to combat domestic violence.
“What I don’t think people understand is the support this law provides to the police, the prosecutors and the courts to handle domestic violence, sexual assaults and stalking,” Mary Ann C. Deibel-Braun, victims services coordinator for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Buffalo, said earlier this month.
What’s more, the law passed Thursday covers all victims of domestic violence, including those in same-sex relationships and immigrants without citizenship or a green card.
“All victims, including Native American and immigrant women, will receive the full protections that they were always meant to receive under this law,” said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, an original sponsor of the law when Congress first approved it in 1994.
Still, many Republicans opposed explicitly saying that gays are covered in the bill, as well as the provision that will allow tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians.
A stalemate over those issues meant that the bill, which had been renewed by huge bipartisan majorities for years, expired in 2011 – a fact Democrats used as evidence in last year’s campaigns that Republicans were waging a “war on women.”
And the measure passed Thursday only because House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, allowed it to come to the floor despite the opposition of most of the Republican caucus.
The House voted first on a narrower version of the bill pushed by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. That version, which didn’t mention gays and watered down the protections for Native American women, failed by a vote of 257 to 166.
Native Americans and their allies pushed strongly to include the language bolstering tribal courts, saying justice would be undone without it.
“There are no current consequences for non-Native perpetrators of attacks on Native American women,” Lesley Farrell, social services commissioner for the Seneca Nation of Indians, said earlier this month. “I don’t have the exact statistics, but it happens on all Indian territories.”
Nevertheless, conservative Republicans worried that the provision bolstering tribal courts may be unconstitutional and that the entire law is an unnecessary federal intrusion in what they think should be a state and local matter.
“What concerns us most is VAWA includes no provisions for financial oversight, views violence more through an ideological lens than a practical one, erodes constitutional rights of the accused and perpetuates the idea that society is hostile to women,” said Charlotte Hays, director of cultural programs at the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative group.