Democrats and advocacy groups are slamming a House Republican bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, saying it could actually cause more harm than good to victims of domestic violence.
“House Republicans have again decided to pursue a partisan, ideological agenda at the expense of the safety of America’s women, children and families,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on her website Tuesday.
Critics were buoyed Tuesday when the White House threatened to veto the House bill.
But the rhetorical war on the issue has masked a surprisingly complicated legal debate at the center of the groups’ complaints, with Republicans warning that long-standing legal precedent and civil liberties protections are at risk.
The Republicans’ concerns were buoyed by a Congressional Research Service report dated Tuesday that said under a Senate-passed version of the bill the “Constitution will not apply” for prosecutions of U.S. citizens for domestic violence crimes committed on tribal lands.
The tribal issue is the most thorny of three top concerns by the coalition of advocacy groups, which agreed on a Tuesday conference call to lobby fiercely against the House bill, spurning overtures from House Republicans and a managers’ amendment designed to address their concerns.
“This is an extremely dangerous bill” that victims rights advocates “shouldn’t go anywhere near,” said Lisalyn Jacobs, a top official for the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women.
The two other main concerns about the House bill, which was introduced by Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.), are that it changes provisions in current law regarding domestic abuse of illegal immigrants and that it does not include new provisions to protect gay, lesbian and transgender people who were in the Senate bill.
At stake on the tribal issue is a loophole for crimes committed on tribal lands that shields some domestic violence perpetrators from prosecution. Criminals have learned to target the loophole, leading to alarmingly high rates of domestic violence in Indian Country, experts say.
On tribal land, American Indian tribes only have jurisdiction over crimes if the perpetrator is an American Indian. Meanwhile, most states only have jurisdiction when neither the victim nor the perpetrator is American Indian.
“Perpetrators can commit these crimes and know that they won’t be held accountable,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women.
To close the loophole, the Senate bill would “recognize and affirm” the “inherent” authority of tribal courts to prosecute non-American Indian domestic violence perpetrators.