Senate votes to renew, expand Violence Against Women Act

WASHINGTON -- With broad support from the U.S. Senate, legislation to renew and expand the Violence Against Women Act is heading to the House of Representatives, where a previous renewal bid failed over Republican concerns about new services for gay, immigrant and Native American victims of domestic violence.

The Senate's 78-22 vote Tuesday afternoon reauthorizing the act extends central provisions such as funding for investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women while also expanding services for the groups it did not previously serve. The act, first passed in 1994, has since been reauthorized twice with bipartisan support. The proposed reauthorization would extend services through 2018.

Since losing seats in November's elections, Republicans have talked about reaching out to minority groups. With its passage in the Senate, the act will test House Republicans' dedication to those words. Twenty-three Republicans voted for it in the Senate.

Tuesday's legislation dropped a specific provision that would have expanded visas for battered immigrants, which the House objected to last year because the provision would technically have raised revenue, which the Constitution prevents the Senate from doing. Following rejection of the Senate bill last year, the House proposed alternative legislation that omitted the visa  provision and also services for gay victims. It also rejected a proposal to change Native American courts to allow them to try non-natives.

The bill's prospects in the House could hinge on the Native American courts provision, which Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and member of the Chickasaw Nation, said was a sticking point for his fellow Republicans. Cole says he has been arguing for a compromise in talks with Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and says the matter should be allowed to come to a vote.

“It's largely an internal fight on the Republican side,” he said in a recent interview. “We're making progress, but we're not where we need to be.”

The act's supporters say it provides needed services for victims of domestic violence. In addition to expanding services for minority groups, the new legislation would allow organizations that aid victims of domestic violence to expand the use of technology in the services they provide, Roberta Valente, a policy consultant at National Domestic Violence Hotline, said recently.

Now, Valente said, outdated language in the act creates questions about funding services for victims using text messages, email or the Internet -- which she said can be important tools for victims wishing to receive help without fear of retribution from a violent partner.

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