House Republicans on Tuesday advanced their own version of an election-year bill to protect women from violence.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 17-15 along party lines to renew the 1994 Violence Against Women Act that protects abused women and which expired last year. The Democratic-controlled Senate passed a conflicting version last month.
The law historically has enjoyed bipartisan support. But this year, with the presidency and congressional majorities at stake and female voters a pivotal constituency, it's become the latest vehicle for gender politicking over an issue on which there's been little debate in less-polarized years.
Republicans say they want to tighten provisions in the Senate bill that would protect abused immigrants _ as well as taxpayer money doled out under the law.
Democrats say any effort to change the Senate version is just the latest shot in what they say is the GOP's "war against women."
"House Republicans are continuing their war on women by holding VAWA, Violence Against Women Act, hostage to their rigid right-wing ideology," Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said.
"Some in Congress," retorted House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, "are trying to use violence against women as a political prop."
Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 to provide legal assistance to abuse victims, enforce protection orders, pay for transitional housing aid and establish youth protection programs. Lawmakers of both parties reauthorized it in 2000 and 2005. The law expired last year.
In the Senate this year, Democrats proposed expanding it to specifically protect gays, lesbians and transsexuals in a move designed in part to prod Republicans into opposing the overall bill. Republicans bristled, saying the law already protects those groups. They objected to additional provisions protecting Native Americans and immigrants. Nonetheless, the Senate voted 68-31 to pass its five-year reauthorization.
House Republicans immediately started writing their own version. It came before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday amid protests from women's groups that called it elitist and anti-victim, among other names. The measure would authorize $599.8 million in federal funding this fiscal year, compared with the Senate version's $659.3 million. The last VAWA act authorized about $796 million.
Sponsored by Rep. Sandy Adams. R-Fla., a long-ago domestic violence victim, the House bill proposes to crack down on fraud and mismanagement of the taxpayer money dispersed under the law. In rare bipartisan fashion, the committee agreed to a Democratic amendment to strike time limits within which the violence must be reported.
But other differences remained. The most pitched discussion centered on the Republicans' proposals for protecting abused illegal immigrants and preventing the law from being fraudulently used to secure citizenship or residency.
Immigration laws allow illegal and legal immigrants on temporary visas to apply to cancel their deportation if they have been victims of crime, including battering or extreme cruelty by a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and been in the country for three years. The House version grants temporary legal status _ so-called U visas _ to abused illegal immigrants only if they assist in the investigation and prosecution of their assailants.
"It doesn't provide them with permanent residency or a path to citizenship," Smith said. "That should never have been a goal of the U visa program and is not necessary to provide illegal immigrants with an incentive to cooperate with law enforcement officials."
The House bill also requires the Homeland Security Department to "consider all credible evidence," including information from the alleged abuser.
Democrats and victims' rights groups said that violates confidentiality requirements in the existing law that are designed to protect victims. Republicans say the provision is intended to give the government as much information as possible.
"This bill is a direct roll back of VAWA laws," said Rocio Mollina of the National Immigrant Women's Advocacy Project at American University. "It fails to protect victims that are vulnerable, that are too traumatized, too scared to report and who face barriers."
Even here, there's a personal-political element to the dispute. The determination of whether battered immigrants can have independent legal resident status are made at an immigration office in St. Albans, Vt., home state of the Senate bill's Democratic author, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. The Adams bill would give facilities in other states, such as California and Texas, the same roles.