American Indian leaders say they want support from two more Republican senators for the Violence Against Women Act and they are making a big push this week to muster support for the bill, which includes measures to specifically help American Indian and Alaska Native victims.
As of Tuesday, the legislation has 58 supporters in the Senate, including its sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Although that means a majority of senators support the act, it lacks the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster should one be launched if the bill reaches the Senate floor.
Tribal leaders' search for additional supporters comes as heightened debate over insurance coverage for contraceptives has led Democrats try to make women's rights an election-year issue. It was unknown whether that debate would provide momentum for the legislation considered by many to be a landmark law in protecting women.
"I hope so," said John Dossett, attorney for the National Congress of American Indians. "Once we get the 60 votes it will be clear to the (Senate) majority leader (Harry Reid, D-Nev.) that he has the votes to move it to the floor."
At a legislative summit of the National Congress of American Indians Tuesday, tribal leaders were given a list of senators, all Republicans, who represent states with reservations and tribal communities. The tribal leaders were told to press those senators to support the bill during meetings this week.
One of the provisions in the act would allow tribes to prosecute offenders who are not American Indian or Alaska Native when their victims are and the violence happens on a reservation.
The House has not taken action on any similar or companion legislation.
The act, first approved in 1994, expired last September. Although the act has been reauthorized several times, this year's update ran into some Republican opposition in committee. A few senators criticized provisions regarding visas for immigrant victims of violence, language specifying services for gay and transgender victims.
The measures also would give tribes authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit violence against American Indian women, which raises concern among some opponents about giving tribal courts increased power over defendants who are not tribal members. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that tribes do not have authority over people who are not American Indian, even when the crime happens on a reservation and involves a member of a tribe.
"They ruined that bill as far as I'm concerned," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Tuesday. "They added things I can't support."
American Indian and Alaska Native women are 2.5 times more likely than other U.S. women to be battered or raped, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Many are domestic violence victims whose abusers and assailants are not Native American.
Dossett said that has prevented tribal officials from prosecuting abusers to help prevent repeat violence. Often the crimes are not serious enough for the federal government to step in. Violence often must escalate before a perpetrator is prosecuted.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she's aware of the concerns raised by her fellow GOP colleagues about tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians. "I'm hopeful this does not derail this legislation. This is too important for us," she said.
Other senators on the tribal leaders' list interviewed outside Senate chambers Tuesday did not immediately know where they stood on the legislation.
Other issues raised at the summit included ongoing negotiations over the transportation bill, now on the floor in the Senate.
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, urged summit attendees to remain united in a goal to get increased spending on transportation, important for construction of roads on reservations and in tribal communities.
"In an environment of tight federal budgets some people expect us to become divided rather than maintain unity," Keel said.
Tribal officials also got a chance to bid farewell to Tom Perrelli, associate U.S. Attorney General. Perrelli leaves the Department of Justice Friday. He is credited with working to improve public safety on tribal reservations.
Perrelli said he's not leaving the department because he is tired of the work, but because his wife just had twins and they now have four boys under 6. He said he would continue to fight to end sexual assault and violence.
Online: National Congress of American Indian: http://www.ncai.org/
Violence Against Women Act, S.1925: http://1.usa.gov/xXrDcq
Follow Suzanne Gamboa at http://www.twitter.com/APsgamboa
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