Turning to a critical piece of unfinished business, Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, joined last week with a Republican colleague, Michael Crapo of Idaho, to reintroduce legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, the 1994 law central to the nation’s efforts to fight domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.
Their bill cleared the Senate last April in a 68-to-31 vote, but it was blocked in the Republican-led House largely over provisions that would expand protections against abuse for gay and immigrant victims.
The reintroduced Senate bill would provide services, like shelters and legal help, for victims of abuse regardless of their sexual orientation or immigration status. But it omits the original bill’s modest increase in the number of special visas, known as U-visas, available to undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assaults.
House Republicans opposed any increase in that number and sought to end the current ability of U-visa holders to apply for permanent residency after three years, a move that would have eliminated an important incentive for frightened victims to contact law enforcement and assist in prosecutions. (They also noted that there was a procedural problem with having a U-visa fee in the original Senate bill.) The new bill also incorporates steps to reduce the inexcusable national backlog of untested rape kits. These changes might make it easier to push this legislation through the House.
In the meantime, the Senate needs to take up the bill as soon as possible before its schedule and attention is fully focused on other big legislative priorities, like gun violence, immigration reform and debt reduction.
There is no need for another set of hearings or another Judiciary Committee vote. The Senate’s majority leader, Harry Reid, should use the window before Congress breaks for its Presidents’ Day recess in February to secure Senate passage of the latest version of the Leahy-Crapo bill. That move would help put pressure on Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders in the House to stop playing ideological games and reach agreement with the Senate on extending this lifesaving law.