There aren’t many bipartisan moments of achievement in a polarized Washington, where legislative stalemate is usually the name of the game.
But President Joe Biden celebrated one Thursday, as he signed into law a measure that won a rare unanimous Senate vote this week: a financial rescue for cash-strapped programs aiding victims of crime.
The Crime Victims Fund, run by the Justice Department, taps revenue from fines and penalties imposed in criminal court cases to provide services to victims, such as counseling and shelter, and to reimburse them for lost wages, health care costs or funeral expenses, among other things.
But money from criminal cases has been on the decline in recent years, as out-of-court settlements become increasingly common. The new legislation would funnel money from those settlements, which currently goes into general revenue, into the Crime Victims Fund instead.
Tapping into out-of-court settlements would result in enough new money coming into the fund to boost spending on mandatory Victims of Crime Act programs by $7.5 billion over a decade, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated.
"This is, what you've done, truly life-saving," Biden told Republican and Democratic lawmakers assembled at a White House East Room signing ceremony. The legislation, he said, will ensure that crime victims "know they're getting the help they need to move toward healing and toward justice."
Those attending the event were mostly Democrats, but included several Republicans: Sens. John Cornyn of Texas; Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming. Getting all of those Republicans on board with other elements of Biden's agenda this year, like raising the debt ceiling or a $3.5 trillion package of climate, family and household aid initiatives, won't be nearly as easy.
All the celebration Thursday, however, masked some opposition that had stalled the measure for months. After sailing through the House in March on a 384-38 vote, the measure had been sitting in the Senate amid grumbling from fiscal conservatives.
Conservatives, led by retiring Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., say the program too often has been used as a slush fund to finance other domestic priorities while evading spending caps.
Appropriators for years have held back spending some of the fund’s revenue so as to claim it as savings to pay for other programs. Those savings, however, exist only on paper, since the unspent money remains in the victims fund available to be distributed later.
The Senate logjam was broken when Democratic leaders agreed to give Toomey a floor vote on an amendment that would set a minimum threshold for Crime Victims Fund spending, effectively walling off more of the money from appropriators' grasp. The amendment allowed conservatives to express their frustration with budget rules that allow for loopholes in discretionary spending caps.
"That was sufficient to remove all of the holds," said Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who lobbied for the bill.
After Toomey’s amendment was defeated on a 40-60 vote, the bill won a rare 100-0 vote to send the measure to Biden for his signature.
Advocates say the financial fix will prevent deep cutbacks to critical victim services. But how much actually gets spent through the Crime Victims Fund will be up to appropriators to decide each year.
In fiscal 2021, for instance, the year-end omnibus bill capped spending on mandatory programs financed by the fund at just over $2 billion; that's a more than $600 million cut from the previous year. That move freed up an extra $3.5 billion to spend on other programs in the Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill's jurisdiction, however.
For the upcoming budget year, the fund's balance has dropped further while House appropriators are trying to restore cuts to mandatory victims fund programs by increasing the obligation cap to $2.6 billion. The combination means they only had less than $1.3 billion to spend elsewhere in the fiscal 2022 Commerce-Justice-Science measure, which could see a floor vote as early as next week.
In a statement after Biden signed the bill, Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy said before the legislative fix the fund's balance was projected to hit a 10-year low later this year. The Vermont Democrat, an original cosponsor of the Senate version, said the new law would "help protect a steady stream of deposits into the Crime Victims Fund so that critical services for victims of crime are not abruptly cut off."