The Senate late Monday defeated a Republican-backed amendment to eliminate a provision of the Violence Against Women Act aimed at beefing up protections for Native American women, setting the stage for final passage of the reauthorization Tuesday.
The amendment offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) would have stripped out language in the bill that allows tribal regions to prosecute non-Native Americans accused of committing crimes against Native Americans.
“What we’ve done with this solution is to trample on the Bill of Rights of every American who’s not a Native American,” Coburn said. “And I have no doubt — I am a hundred percent certain that this portion of the bill is going to be thrown out by the first federal judge that hears it.”
It was voted down by a 31-59 margin.
“Less than 50 percent of domestic violence cases in Indian Country are prosecuted because of a gap in the legal system,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), chair of the Indian Affairs Committee, said before the vote. “We shouldn’t strip out this provision. We should move forward.”
The provision is the central sticking point in the long-running congressional battle over how to reauthorize the 1994 legislation, which has been in limbo since 2011. Conservatives contend that the Constitution prohibits the federal government from enacting that provision. Democrats and advocates for combating domestic violence contend that it’s both constitutional and necessary, pointing out that Native American women are two and a half times as likely to be raped.
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said the provision was a product of the “unconstitutional demands of special interests,” characterizing it as the reason for his opposition to the bill. Although Democrats picked up enough Republican senators to move their bill with a super-majority, other GOP lawmakers preferred a scaled-back version, introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), that failed 34-65 last Thursday.
In the House, Republican leaders are reluctant to take up the Senate measure as is, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has been leading the effort to find a resolution. Some Republicans also dislike provisions expanding coverage for gays and illegal immigrants.
Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which has championed the Senate bill, said Cantor’s office has been “particularly responsive in terms of meeting with advocates and trying to achieve agreement with his Republican caucus.” She said Reps. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Darrell Issa (R-CA) have also been “very helpful” in working to find a compromise on how to resolve the divide over tribal lands. One proposal Republicans have considered is to offer non-Native Americans convicted of violence a course of appeal outside of tribal courts.
Once the Senate bill passes, the politics will become problematic for House Republicans, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) admitted.
“This will have passed the Senate. The president’s for it,” Cole told the New York Times. “And we’re holding up a domestic violence bill that should be routine because you don’t want to help Native women who are the most vulnerable over a philosophical point?”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.