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House Clears Renewal of Domestic Violence Law

The House cleared an update of the Violence Against Women Act on Thursday, sending the measure to President Barack Obama after a protracted yearlong push to extend the law.

House lawmakers voted 286-138 to endorse a bipartisan reauthorization (S 47) of the law that the Senate passed earlier this month. The final vote to clear the measure came after the House rejected a Republican alternative that fell flat with many in the GOP caucus.

The law aims to reduce domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking, as well as to help victims of those crimes. It operates primarily through awarding federal grants to state and local authorities, nonprofit organizations and universities.

“Renewing this bill is an important step towards making sure no one in America is forced to live in fear, and I look forward to signing it into law as soon as it hits my desk,” Obama said in a statement following the vote.

First enacted in 1994 as part of an omnibus crime bill (PL 103-322), the domestic violence law has been easily reauthorized twice. But the latest renewal became mired in election year politics and policy fights over provisions designed to ensure access to services for gay and lesbian victims, American Indians and illegal immigrants.

The House cleared the reauthorization bill with 87 Republicans joining a united Democratic Caucus in the “yes” column. That outcome was widely expected after House GOP leaders signaled late Tuesday they knew their narrower alternative, a nonstarter with Democrats, was not gaining enough traction among Republicans.

Before backing the Senate-passed measure, the House rejected the GOP substitute in a 166-257 vote. The Republican proposal was objectionable to Democrats for its lack of Senate-backed provisions on gay and lesbian victims, human trafficking, dating violence on college campuses and a backlog of untested DNA evidence, including rape kits.

Sixty Republicans opposed the GOP substitute and two Democrats — Daniel Lipinski of Illinois and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina — supported it.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said House lawmakers were faced with “a very clear choice,” arguing that the Republican version would leave out “exactly the women who are the most vulnerable.”

But many GOP lawmakers said that argument is flawed, because no women are explicitly excluded from protections. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., urged support for his party’s alternative, saying, “We want to help all women.”

The GOP measure’s inability to win over enough Republicans stems largely from an intraparty split over how to address high levels of violence against American Indian women.

The final bill, which the Senate passed 78-22 on Feb. 12, will give tribal courts more authority over domestic-violence crimes committed by non-American Indian offenders, but critics worry such a move will undermine constitutional protections for those defendants and ultimately be overturned in court.

The House GOP alternative requires tribal courts to be certified by the Justice Department in order to handle the cases and to prove they give defendants their constitutional rights. But more than a dozen Republicans had signed on to a separate bill (HR 780) that sought to find middle ground on the issue by allowing non-American Indians to ask for their cases to be moved from tribal to federal court.

One of those lawmakers, Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma, said Tuesday he would have pressed for an amendment along those lines if the floor debate hadn’t been structured to ostensibly allow a vote on the clean Senate bill.

Human Trafficking Provisions

The bill includes provisions that would effectively reauthorize a 2000 anti-human trafficking law (PL 106-386) that was the subject of a fierce partisan battle last Congress.

Until the 112th Congress, the trafficking law — which creates and funds law enforcement and social services programs to combat sex slavery and forced labor in the United States and abroad — had been unanimously reauthorized three times. In October 2012, however, the Health and Human Services Department decided not to renew its contract with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for trafficking victims’ services, due to the bishops’ refusal to cover reproductive health expenses. That raised the ire of House Republicans, who deemed the decision yet another example of the Obama administration’s “war on religion.” Past GOP sponsors refused to move a bill without adding a conscience clause and other significant changes, making the bill toxic for Democrats.

This time around, Senate sponsor Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, sought to avoid getting bogged down in a similar fight, tacking the reauthorization language onto the Violence Against Women Act renewal when that bill, which he also sponsored, came to the Senate floor. That gambit paid off Thursday.

Emily Cadei contributed to this story.

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