WASHINGTON (AP) — Senators tussled Thursday over whether Indian authorities should be able to prosecute non-Indians in domestic abuse cases, an issue that has delayed passage of legislation to renew the federal government's main law in the fight against domestic violence.
A final vote on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act is now scheduled for Monday.
The 1994 act expired in 2011, but reauthorization was blocked last year by differences between the Democratic-led Senate, which is seeking to extend new protections for gays, lesbians, immigrants and Native American women, and the Republicans in the House, who said the Senate bill goes too far.
Advocates of the act have been more optimistic this year because Republicans trying to shore up their losses among female voters in the November election say they are eager to pass a bill.
The Senate had hoped to pass its bill on Thursday, but a final vote was put off so that it could debate, and defeat, a substitute by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that would have altered the provision on tribal courts. Grassley, saying subjecting non-Indians to Indian courts would raise significant constitutional problems, instead proposed that more federal prosecutors and magistrates be placed in Indian country for domestic violence and sexual assault cases. He would also have allowed tribes to petition a federal court for protection orders to exclude an abuser from Indian land.
How to deal with the alarming level of violence against women on tribal lands, often perpetrated by non-Indian partners, was also a major sticking point last year when the Senate and House passed different bills.
The Senate bill would recognize tribal authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit domestic violence against their Indian spouses or partners.
Indian women often live hours and hours away from the nearest federal prosecutor, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a key supporter, and for those abusing women in these isolated places that "equates to nothing short of a safe haven for them."
The National Congress of American Indians says that 39 percent of Indian and Alaska Native women will be subject to violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, well above rates for other races. It says U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute half of violent crimes in Indian country, and two-thirds of those cases involved sexual abuse.
"Let's not undercut the provisions to help protect Indian woman," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "The best legal views of which I am aware believe these provisions are both constructive and constitutional."
Grassley's amendment, which would also have taken steps to reduce fraud and overspending in programs covered by the Violence Against Women Act and tighten rules that govern immigrants subject to domestic abuse, was defeated 65-34.
The House last year took a similar approach to the Grassley amendment and also removed language specifying that lesbians, gays and bisexual and transgender victims should have equal access to VAWA-funded services.
A possible solution to the Indian court issue has been offered by Republican Reps. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, one of three House members of Indian heritage, and Darrell Issa, R-Calif. They have proposed giving non-Indians the right to request that their case be moved to a federal court if they feel they are not receiving a fair trial.
Cole, in an interview, said he was meeting with House Majority Leader Cantor, R-Va., and others involved on the issue and there was a "genuine effort to find common ground." He said that one in three Native American women is subject to sexual assault in her lifetime, often by a non-Indian, and that federal authorities often are too far away to help. Cole called it "bizarre" that tribal leaders were unable to pursue cases.
Cantor, the lead player in crafting the House bill, said Wednesday he had been having daily meetings on how best to move the bill forward, and had been in touch with the office of Vice President Joe Biden, who as a senator was a lead sponsor of the original 1994 bill.
Speaking on the House floor, Cantor said that "while we want to protect the women who are subject to abuse on tribal lands," the bill had been "complicated" by other issues. "I hope to be able to deal with this, bring it up in an expeditious manner."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Thursday urged Republicans to act quickly, saying that every minute Congress delays another 24 Americans become victims of domestic violence.
Under the existing law, the federal government provides grants to states and local governments for services such as transitional housing, legal assistance and law enforcement training. This has helped increase rates of prosecution and conviction of offenders by helping communities develop dedicated law enforcement units for domestic violence. VAWA's National Domestic Violence Hotline receives more than 22,000 calls a month. The law also established the Office on Violence Against Women within the Justice Department.
The Senate bill would authorize $659 million over five years for the programs, down 17 percent from the last reauthorization in 2005. The bill also gives more emphasis to sexual assault prevention and takes steps to reduce the rape kit backlog.
It removes a provision that Republicans objected to last year that would have increased visas for immigrant victims of domestic violence.