WASHINGTON — Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said Thursday that she will vote to renew the main federal law aimed at fighting domestic violence, despite a few misgivings about the new version.
The Senate is expected to vote next week on reauthorizing the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which expired in 2011. Senate Democrats have sought to extend new protections to lesbian, immigrant and Native American women.
Republicans complained that Democrats loaded the bill with poison pills, such as allowing tribal courts to handle criminal prosecutions against non-Indian perpetrators of domestic violence. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and other Republicans said the tribal court provisions would create significant constitutional problems.
The measure is politically charged after an election in which Republicans fared relatively poorly with women.
Grassley offered an amendment that would have placed more federal prosecutors and magistrates in Indian country for domestic violence and sexual assault cases. He also would have allowed tribes to petition a federal court for protection orders to exclude an abuser from Indian land.
“What is very cruel is to provide tribal women the illusion of a solution that courts may well strike down on constitutional grounds in the future,” Grassley said on the Senate floor.
The National Congress of American Indians says 39 percent of Indian and Alaskan Native women will be subject to violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, well above rates for other races. It says U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute half of violent crimes in Indian country, and two-thirds of those cases involved sexual abuse.
“Let’s not undercut the provisions to help protect Indian women,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “The best legal views of which I am aware believe these provisions are both constructive and constitutional.”
Grassley’s amendment — which also would have taken steps to reduce fraud and overspending in programs covered by the Violence Against Women Act and tighten rules that govern immigrants subject to domestic abuse — was defeated 65-34.
Supporters of the act in Nebraska have been collecting petition signatures to urge Fischer to vote in favor of the bill, highlighting that she was the sole woman in the Senate not to sign on as a co-sponsor.
Fischer expressed support to The World-Herald for the underlying goal of protecting domestic violence victims but said she was concerned about the constitutionality of the Indian court provisions and had problems with some individual programs. She said she will cast her vote for the bill with the hope that those concerns are addressed in negotiations between the House and Senate in a conference committee.
“Hopefully in conference they can take care of some of the objections that I have to it,” Fischer said. “One of them being the number of programs that are under investigation by the Justice Department.”
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, plans to support the bill, while Grassley said he’ll most likely vote against the legislation because of those constitutional concerns.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., also said he expects to vote against the bill for the same reason, although he said he hopes he’ll have the chance to support an improved version.
“We shouldn’t be voting for things that aren’t constitutional, and this one is pretty key, because it expands tribal authority over non-Indians, which I’m very confident won’t hold up in court and it shouldn’t be in the bill,” Johanns said.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.
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