The House this week will take up the Violence Against Women Act, legislation that in past years has been approved with little fuss. But it won't go that smoothly this time because the bill has become the latest election-year battleground in what Democrats claim is the Republican Party's "war against women."
The bill, last reauthorized in 2005, is intended to reduce domestic violence and would call for $600 million to be spent on legal assistance, housing and programs that help victims of domestic violence. Democrats and Republicans are divided, however, over exactly whom the bill is supposed to protect.
House Democrats want a bill similar to the one passed by the Democratically controlled Senate. That bill would provide special protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. It would also expand the authority of Native American authorities to prosecute non-Indians who commit violence against a Native American on tribal lands.
The Republican bill excludes all of those special protections.
The Democratic version of the bill approved by the Senate also would raise the number of special U.S. visas issued to prevent the deportation of illegal immigrants who claim to be victims of domestic violence. House Republicans want to maintain the current cap on such visas and tighten the rules for who would qualify for such protections, including requiring anyone who received such a visa to aid the prosecution of the alleged abusers.
Democrats last week called in victims of domestic violence and their advocates to denounce the Republican version of the bill.
"This attack on women is going to be noted across the United States of America," declared Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Groups trying to prevent domestic violence said they were particularly troubled by a Republican proposal that would require that alleged abusers be notified when the victim seeks a special visa.
"This puts the person in dire danger," Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told The Washington Examiner. "You can't give the abuser a heads up that the victim is seeking assistance because it makes it much more likely the victim is going to be hurt or killed."
Republicans defended their proposal as a way to eliminate wasteful spending within the visa program. It also would help prevent abuses of the visa program by toughening the verification process of abuse claims and by blocking illegal immigrants who apply for such visas from becoming legal permanent residents.
"Fraud and abuse in the U.S. immigration system must be stopped," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas. "The changes made in this bill ... ensure that scarce resources funded by the American taxpayers go to actual victims."
Smith noted that the Republican bill provides the same funding levels for grant programs as the Democratic bill and warned Democrats against "trying to use violence against women as a political prop."
The Republican bill being taken up by the House this week also drew the wrath of gay rights advocates, who argue that the Democratic version approved by the Senate goes much further in protecting gay or transgender people by ensuring they can not be denied services, including admission to shelters for battered women.