By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate approved a bill on Thursday to renew and expand a landmark law to combat domestic violence after Democrats and Republicans accused each other of playing election-year politics.
On a vote of 68-31, the Democratic-led Senate sent the legislation to the Republican-led House of Representatives where it is expected to face another fight before any final deal is reached.
Fifteen Senate Republicans joined 51 Democrats and two independents in voting to approve the White House-backed bill, while 31 Republicans opposed it.
First passed in 1994 to give law enforcement added muscle to combat domestic abuse, the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized twice before with broad bipartisan support.
But it ran into trouble this year with Democrats pushing to broaden the law and accusing Republicans of being insensitive to the needs of women.
Republicans rejected the charge and accused Democrats of trying to insert into the law hot-button issues to rally their liberal base in advance of the November 6 congressional and presidential election.
The Senate-passed bill would expand the law to explicitly provide protection to gays, illegal immigrants and Native Americans.
For example, crime victims who are in the United States illegally could get special visas allowing them to stay temporarily and give law enforcement more time to investigate their cases.
"Expanding coverage for domestic violence should never have been controversial," said Senator Patty Murray, a member of Democratic leadership.
"Where a person lives, who they love, or what their citizenship status may be should not determine whether or not their perpetrators are brought to justice," Murray said. "In the end we were able to come together around an inclusive, bipartisan bill."
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney backs renewal of the 18-year-old law, but hopes it can be done without "turning it into a political football," an aide said.
With polls showing that women voters favor President Barack Obama over Romney by about 12 percentage points, Republicans are under pressure to renew the law.
The measure would continue the law for five years, eliminate some domestic abuse programs, and cut authorized funding by about 20 percent to $659.3 million.
Republican Senator Mike Lee said the Senate bill "has the honorable goal of assisting victims of domestic violence," but unjustly expands the power of the federal government.
"My opposition ... is a vote against big government and inefficient spending," Lee said.
Just a week or so ago, it was unclear when or even if the Senate would pass the bill, which is backed by law enforcement and victims groups. But then, the number of cosponsors, including eight Republicans, climbed to 61, one more than needed to clear any procedural roadblock.
At the same time, Republicans felt election-year pressure to get the legislation behind them so they could move on to other issues.
At a news conference on Wednesday, a dozen House Republicans unveiled their alternative bill. It would bolster penalties for abuse without specifically addressing gays and immigrants.
"We are not going to be looking at the controversial issues that will detract" from the law, said Republican Representative Sandy Adams, a chief sponsor.
(Reporting By Thomas Ferraro)