Violence Against Women Act A Victim Of Congress' Stagnation



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For the first time since 1994, the Violence Against Women Act has been allowed to expire. The reason? Political gridlock. Weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden talks to NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson about what happened to the long-standing law, what it means for women and what options are on the table.

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

For the first time since 1994, the Violence Against Women Act has been allowed to expire. The law gives police and social service groups money to help fight domestic violence and sexual assault.

The sticking point for reauthorizing the measure was apparently new protections for Native American women - those drew objections from House Republicans. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here to talk about the law. Carrie, thanks for coming in.


LYDEN: So the Senate passed its version of a Violence Against Women law back in April and the House couldn't reach an agreement - a not unfamiliar script in D.C. these days. What went wrong?

JOHNSON: Jacki, the Senate actually had 68 votes for its version of this law, which means it was really a bipartisan measure in all respects. The House passed a different version, but it stripped some provisions from the Senate bill and, in some ways, according to advocates for victims of domestic violence, set back the clock a ways.

The White House said under no circumstances would it sign or approve the House measure, and that threw the process into chaos late last year. Vice President Joe Biden, who was a leading proponent of the Violence Against Women Act when it first passed in Congress, got involved. He tried to negotiate with House Majority leader Eric Cantor, but they could not come up with a deal.

LYDEN: But what had changed, Carrie, in the legislation?

JOHNSON: There were three new provisions in the Senate measure. This law dates back to 1994, and it's been reauthorized pretty much every five years without fail. And these three new provisions were more protection for victims who come from the LGBT community - gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered victims - and more protection for immigrants who may or may not be in the country legally, and finally, more protection for Native American women - women on reservations whose statistics show are the victim of violence most often from people who do not live on those reservations. And the tribal courts in Indian country currently are not empowered to hear those cases, which involve offenders from non-Native American communities. The Senate would have allowed that to happen for the first time.

LYDEN: We've heard a lot about sexual violence in Indian territory, as you say. What was the objection to extending protection to them under this law?

JOHNSON: The central nature of the objection was never fully specified in public. But from what I've been able to figure out from talking to people on the Hill, people in the Justice Department and people in the victims' advocacy community, it was this notion that expanding some jurisdiction for the tribal courts raised bigger questions about the authority of the tribal courts.

If you expand jurisdiction for one category, the category of, say, white men who rape or assault in some other way women on the reservation, where do you stop? Once you start changing the jurisdiction of those tribal courts, you could make an argument - and I think some House Republicans did - that there's no limit there.

LYDEN: So things got stalled in the House. Do we have any idea how this will impact women and victims of domestic violence?

JOHNSON: What I've been hearing from people in the victims' advocacy community and people at the Justice Department is that the Violence Against Women Act mostly provides money - grant money - for training police and courts and prosecutors and for social service organizations that help victims.

All of those protections will continue so long as Congress continues to appropriate money to the Justice Department and, Jacki, so long as Congress is able to come up with some solution to sequestration, which, as of now, is set to take effect in March.

LYDEN: Are you hearing anything, Carrie, about what might happen this year on Capitol Hill?

JOHNSON: Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority leader, says this is a top priority, and Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont who sort of separated this bill through the Senate last year, calls it a disappointment and a tragedy that it was not reauthorized. He plans to introduce some comprehensive new legislation very soon.

LYDEN: That's NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thank you very much.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.