One of the casualties of congressional gridlock last year was reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The landmark law that caused a sea change in how the country deals with domestic violence fell victim to the partisanship and inertia of Washington.
But there are hopeful signs that Congress may be getting serious about resolving the differences that have held up the law's authorization and that threaten important protections for victims in abusive relationships.
The Senate and House last year each passed bills to reauthorize the act, but differences over new provisions for gay, immigrant and Native American victims of intimate partner violence opposed by the Republican-led House derailed reauthorization.
The Senate this month gave strong bipartisan approval to a bill that rightly doesn't retreat from providing services to abuse victims, no matter their sexual orientation or immigration status. But in a concession aimed at winning passage in the House, a proposed increase in the number of visas for victims who are undocumented was dropped.
The Senate also agreed to toughen efforts to fight human trafficking and expand testing and cataloguing of rape kits, measures that also have been stalled. The bill got more support this year, 78 to 22, than last year, 68 to 31.
There is still disagreement, though, about a provision in the bill that aims to tackle the high incidence of domestic and sexual abuse of Native American women by giving new powers to tribal police and courts.
Native American women are at higher risk of abuse and sexual violence, but prosecution of these crimes often falls through the cracks. That's because federal and state law enforcement authorities lack resources and are often separated by great distance from tribal lands, and tribal courts are not allowed to get involved in crimes involving non-Indians or that are committed off tribal lands.
The Senate bill includes comprehensive protections (rights to counsel, a speedy trial, due process, etc.) to all those prosecuted in tribal courts, but concerns persist. Two conservative House Republicans, Darrell Issa, Calif., and Tom Cole, Okla., have advanced a modification that would allow a case to be moved to federal court if defendants' rights are violated.
Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., co-sponsor of the Senate bill along with Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, previously called the proposal "a reasonable, middle-ground position." Other encouraging signs include a letter sent by 17 House Republicans to Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, urging action on an act that includes "all victims and perpetrators of domestic violence," and comments from Boehner signaling he may be open to taking up the Senate bill.
Reauthorization is long overdue.