The Violence Against Women Act empowers law enforcement to crack down on domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. It was first enacted in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000 and 2005 with little opposition. The current reauthorization includes a new grant program and additional measures to accommodate same-sex couples and unauthorized immigrants, which Republicans on the Judiciary Committee unanimously objected to as it passed the committee last month on a party-line vote.
Now, with 59 signatories for their expanded version -- including Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski (AK), Olympia Snowe (ME) and Susan Collins (ME), Mark Kirk (IL), Scott Brown (MA) and Mike Crapo (ID) -- Democrats are essentially daring the GOP to oppose it.
"It's hard to believe we're having a debate in 2012 about protecting women from violence," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). "But we are."
"I'm disappointed that these issues keep coming up," said Sen. Patty Murray (WA), a member of the Democratic leadership, vowing to "fight back against attempts to turn back the clock when it comes to women's health care."
Sen. Chuck Grassley (IA), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said the GOP has no objections to the law as it stands, it only objects to the new provisions. "It's a shame that the majority party is manufacturing another partisan, political crisis, because in actuality, there is no concern that the VAWA will go away," Grassley said in a statement. He called for "a fair process that includes consideration of our alternative."
The GOP's alternative bill omits the streamlined provisions and restricts the ability of abused undocumented immigrants to gain legal status. Democrats reject that approach and, with some help from Republican senators, are insisting on their new version.
Boxer and Murray were among eight female senators, including Murkowski, who took to the floor Thursday to make the case for reauthorization. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said of the "split party vote" in Judiciary, "I was stunned by this vote, because never before had there been any controversy in more than a decade and a half about this bill."
VAWA has had an impact. From 1993 (one year before its passage) to 2008, the number of women killed in domestic violence incidents fell by 35 percent, while non-fatal acts against women decreased by 53 percent, according to Justice Department figures. Domestic violence against men has also substantially been reduced.
This leaves the GOP in a pickle. Recent moves, particularly their support for the Blunt amendment, have alienated female voters and created a perception that Republicans have spurned women. And whatever the basis for their opposition to the Dems' version of VAWA, being painted against protecting women from domestic violence could be perilous.
Murkowski in particular is sensitive to a growing public perception that Republicans are anti-women, which has been fueled by the recent birth-control controversy. While strongly championing VAWA, she said she hopes Dems will accommodate her party's qualms.
"I know some of my colleagues have some concerns," she said, "and I have said that we need to take these concerns into account so that we can have, we should have, an overwhelmingly bipartisan bill. This is too important an issue for women, and men, and families."
Democrats, however, are proud of the new changes and have no interest in ditching them.
"The bill includes lesbian and gay men. This bill includes undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse," Feinstein said. "The bill gives Native American tribes authority to prosecute crimes. In my view these are improvements. Domestic violence is domestic violence. ... When you call the police in America, they come regardless of who you are."