Politics ensnares efforts to reauthorize Violence Against Women Act

The Takeaway

The Violence Against Women Act, federal legislation aimed at ending violence against women and supporting victims of violence, is up for reauthorization this year.

Senate Democrats began a push for reauthorization Thursday. The original bill, passed in 1994, enjoyed strong support from both sides of the aisle.

Critics are attacking new programs included in this iteration of the act, including expanded programs for immigrants to access visas if they’re victims of domestic violence and support for victims in same-sex relationships. Democrats say that this is the latest in Republicans’ war on women. Republicans say federal money needs to be spent responsibly. 

Key provisions of the existing law include that protection orders issued by one state must be honored by all others, provide funding for victim services and training for law enforcement as well as for prevention efforts, said Lynn Hecht Schafran, senior vice president of Legal Momentum, a women’s legal defense and education fund. Schafran was part of the team that helped then-Senator Joe Biden draft and pass the original bill in 1994.

But Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.) is critical of the funding model, because he said there are no safeguards in the bill to make sure the money is spent as the government intended. Schafran said the safeguards come in the form of reports that women’s groups make to nonprofits as well as regularly testifying before all levels of governmental bodies.

Sessions is also critical of the bill, because he said Democrats have added language that would make it impossible for Republicans to support and in so doing, allow them to be called weak on fighting violence against women.

Schafran rejected that.

“What he’s objecting to is aspects of the bill clarifying what’s always been true about the bill but required clarification. That services can be provided to LGBTQ victims,” she said. “That there are ways that we can support immigrants who are victims who are trying to obtain U visas here.”

The bill would also expand services for Native American women — a population that’s exposed to violence at higher rates than the typical population and that was underserved in the regular bill, Schafran said.

And while there is some Republican opposition to the bill, Schafran said it should be clear that there is still bipartisan support in Congress. It’s just less than it once was because of the highly political time we live in, she said.

“None of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, from the Republican side, are supporting the bill as written,” Schafran said. “They have their own version, which would really strip out many of the protections for different kinds of groups.”

It would, for example, prevent funding for stopping teen dating violence, she said. 

“These are behaviors that are learned at acted on starting at very early youth,” she said.

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