The Republican-crafted House bill to renew the popular 1994 act, which expired in 2011, was introduced Friday to instant criticism from Senate Democrats, who said it fell short in fulfilling the law's mission of protecting women from domestic violence.
The office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., defended the bill, saying Cantor was committed to reauthorizing the law and had worked hard to build consensus between the two parties and with advocacy groups.
The Senate last week passed its version of what is called VAWA on a bipartisan 78-22 vote, and Senate supporters, joined by House Democrats, have been urging House GOP leaders to model their legislation after the Senate bill.
The House bill, headed for a vote next week, does move toward the Senate on the issue of giving tribal authorities the power to prosecute non-Indians in domestic violence cases but drew fire on other points.
The House proposal, said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a chief sponsor of the Senate bill, "will not provide critical protections for rape victims, domestic violence victims, human trafficking victims, students on campuses or stalking victims."
The failure of the two chambers to find common ground on the measure last year, when the House resisted Senate provisions to make clear that lesbians and gays, immigrants and Native Americans have access to VAWA programs, became an election issue, with Democrats asserting that they were the party that best represented the interests of women.
Cantor has been at the head of GOP efforts to come up with a House alternative to the Senate bill and has promised legislation that will ensure that the law's role in protecting women is continued. Supporters of the House approach say it strengthens protections by increasing accountability in VAWA programs and guaranteeing that sexual assault resources are distributed equitably.
The law has been a cornerstone in federal efforts to reduce acts of violence against women and prosecute offenders and is credited for making Americans more aware of the domestic violence issue. It provides federal grants for programs such as transitional housing, law enforcement training, legal assistance, anti-violence hotlines and improving campus safety.
Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said her group was "extremely hopeful that House leadership would introduce a bill that would safely and effectively meet the needs of all victims. Unfortunately, the House substitute introduced today fails to do so."
One problem lingering from last year was how to deal with the epidemic in domestic violence cases on Indian reservations and the poor record of federal authorities in prosecuting cases against non-Indians who abuse Indian partners. The Senate bill gives tribal authorities power to prosecute such cases, but critics, including House Republicans, raised constitutional issues about non-Indian American citizens being tried by Indian courts. The new House bill gives Indian courts some jurisdiction but only after the Justice Department certifies that those courts are capable of protecting the defendant's constitutional rights.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who is of Indian heritage and has been trying to find a compromise on the issue, said the House approach was a step in the right direction but "the legislation still falls short in providing tribes the authority they need to secure their territory and protect their citizens."