Leahy: Time For Senate To Consider Bipartisan VAWA Reauthorization Bill

WASHINGTON (Thursday, April 19, 2012) – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the lead author of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, spoke on the Senate Floor Thursday about the importance of reauthorizing the landmark law that has been at the foundation of the nation’s response to domestic and sexual violence since 1994.  The Senate Majority Leader has moved to proceed to the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, queuing up Senate consideration of the legislation when the chamber concludes work on postal reform proposals.

“For almost 18 years, the Violence Against Women Act has been the centerpiece of the federal government’s commitment to combat domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking,” said Leahy.  “The impact of this landmark law has been remarkable. It has provided life saving assistance to hundreds of thousands of women, children and men.”

The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act would further strengthen and improve programs authorized under the landmark law to assist victims and survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.  The reauthorization bill includes an increased focus on sexual assault, including the addition of new purpose areas to support the efforts of sexual assault coalitions working in the states and provisions to help reduce rape kit backlogs.

“Now it is time to renew our commitment to the victims that are helped by this critical legislation,” Leahy said.  “We need to move forward and reaffirm that ending violence against women is a priority for all Americans.  And we need to be a beacon to others around the world in this regard.  With this effort we set the standard and show that America understands equality, recognizes human dignity, and will fight injustice against the most vulnerable among us.”

The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act is supported by over 700 national, state and local organizations, including victim service providers, law enforcement officers, prosecutors and survivors themselves. 

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
Opening the Senate Debate of the “Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act Of 2011” April 19, 2012

I thank the Majority Leader for moving to proceed to the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act as the next legislative measure for the Senate to consider.  He made the motion Tuesday afternoon.  My hope is that it will not be necessary to have extended debate or a filibuster or the filing of a cloture petition and a delay of several days and then a delay of two more days even after more than 60 Senates vote to bring the debate to a close and proceed to the bill and then another vote on the motion to proceed before the Senate is permitted to consider to this important measure.  For almost 18 years, the Violence Against Women Act has been the centerpiece of the Federal Government’s commitment to combat domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. The impact of this landmark law has been remarkable. It has provided life saving assistance to hundreds of thousands of women, children and men. 

I appreciate the bipartisan support that this bill has had from the beginning. Senator Crapo and I introduced the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act last year.  Senator Kirk joined as a cosponsor last year.  Senator Murkowski joined a number of women Senators from both sides of the aisle to urge Senate consider several weeks ago.  Many others have continued to join our effort and to strongly endorse our bill.  

Too often this year and for the last couple of years, the Senate has been delayed for days on end before agreeing to proceed to important legislation.  The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act is a measure that is cosponsored by 61 Senators.  It is a bipartisan measure cosponsored by Democrats, Republicans and Independents.  It is a measure that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last February.  I hope that Democrats, Republicans and Independents will come together to proceed to consider this bill without delay.   

The Violence Against Women Act has always had bipartisan support, even during some of the most difficult and partisan times in recent history.  In 1994, as Congress fought over the Clinton crime bill, health care reform and taxes, VAWA passed the Senate Judiciary Committee with a voice vote and passed the House unanimously.  In 2000, as the country engaged in one of the most closely-divided presidential elections in our history, the Senate reauthorized VAWA by unanimous consent.  In 2005, on the heels of another divisive election cycle and with political battles raging about President Bush’s efforts to privatize Social Security and to pack the Federal courts with ideological nominees, the Senate once again passed VAWA reauthorization by unanimous consent.  I worked to pass VAWA each time and we did so with support from both sides of the political aisle.

The Violence Against Women Act should again pass with broad bipartisan support.  This issue is too important for partisanship.  I am heartened that it has attracted bipartisan support at a time when Republican Senators are being urged to oppose it as well as other traditionally bipartisan efforts like renewal of the Second Chance Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.  I trust that Senators will step forward in the days ahead to do the right thing, to support our VAWA legislation and to send the message to women and all Americans that we are united in this important effort.

The reauthorization of this critical legislation is an opportunity for the Senate to come together and renew our shared commitment to ending violence against women.   For generations, violence against women in this country was condoned.  Too often these insidious crimes were dismissed with a joke or a shrug.  Rape was too often excused and domestic violence was tolerated as a family matter.  Victims were blamed, humiliated, and ignored.  They had nowhere to turn.  There were no crisis centers, there were no shelters.  Far too many women and families were left to fend for themselves.

The Violence Against Women Act helped to change that.  It sent a powerful message that violence against women is a crime, and that it will not be tolerated.  It transformed the law enforcement response and provided services to victims all across the country.  Now it is time to renew our commitment to the victims that are helped by this critical legislation.  

While we have come a long way, we should not abandon our efforts.  We read about cities such as Topeka, Kansas deciding for a time to suspend prosecutions of domestic violence to save money, as if it were not a priority.  These victims need our help and the reassurance that we will not abandon them.  Law enforcement needs our support.  This work is not done.  We cannot allow partisanship to turn the clock back to the dark days before the Violence Against Women Act.  We need to move forward and reaffirm that ending violence against women is a priority for all Americans.  And we need to be a beacon to others around the world in this regard.  With this effort we set the standard and show that America understands equality, recognizes human dignity, and will fight injustice against the most vulnerable among us. 

The legislation that I introduced with Senator Crapo last November, and that the Senate Judiciary Committee passed out of Committee more than two months ago, is drawn from the needs of survivors of domestic and sexual violence. It is based on the recommendations of the tireless professionals who serve those survivors every day.  It includes improvements suggested by law enforcement officers around the country.  As we build on the progress that we have made in reducing domestic and sexual violence, we make vital improvements to respond to remaining, unmet needs to better serve the victims of violence. 

We incorporate the important work that Chairman Akaka, Senator Murkowski, and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee have been doing to try to respond to the epidemic of domestic and sexual violence in Tribal communities.

We increase the focus on effective responses to sexual assault. While the annual incidence of domestic violence has fallen by more than 50 percent since VAWA was first passed, that progress has not yet translated to reducing sexual assault.  Incidence of sexual assault remains high, while reporting rates, prosecution rates, and conviction rates remain appallingly low.  This reauthorization faces that problem head on. It ensures that funds are allocated to law enforcement and victim service responses to sexual assault, and it authorizes support for law enforcement sexual assault training and the reduction of backlogs of untested rape kits.

This Senate legislation also encourages the use of new, evidence-based methods to prevent domestic violence homicide. Nearly half of all women killed in this country die at the hands of their husband or boyfriend.  If there are things we can do to confront these tragedies, we should not stand idly by while they continue. There are key warning signs that can identify cases with a high risk of homicide.  With the right kinds of interventions and support, many lives can be saved. 

Passing this legislation with all of its significant improvements to address the ongoing problems of domestic and sexual violence should be a bipartisan priority.  Law enforcement and those who work with the survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence know this.  My early experience with sexual assaults was not as a Senator but as a local prosecutor.  Senator Crapo has been visiting women’s shelters and working on these issues for decades as well.  His principled bipartisanship should be respected and celebrated as in the best tradition of the Senate.  From the outset, we have consulted to make this bill the best that it can be.  

More than a month ago, Senators from both parties came forward to urge the Senate to take up and pass this reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.  The Senate heard that day from Senator Klobuchar, Senator Murkowski, Senator Mikulski, Senator Murray, Senator Hagan, Senator Shaheen, Senator Feinstein, and Senator Boxer, the author of a House bill in 1990.  Eight Senators came to the floor to remind us all why this measure is important and that the Senate should proceed to pass it. 

As every prior VAWA authorization has done, this bill takes steps to recognize those victims whose needs are not being served and find ways to help them.  This is not new or different.  It should not be a basis for partisan division.  This is what the Violence Against Women Act has always done.  It reaches out to help all victims. As Senator Feinstein said:  “[T]hese are improvements. Domestic violence is domestic violence.”

Domestic and sexual violence against Native women continues to be a problem of epidemic proportions.  Nearly three out of five Native American women have been assaulted by their spouses or intimate partners, and the estimate is that one third of all American Indian women will be raped during their lifetimes.  We should not merely stand by and let this continue if the Indian Affairs Committee has identified for us ways to confront this crisis.

This bill takes responsible steps to protect Native women.  It increases Federal law enforcement tools and improves grant programs.  It also fills a key jurisdictional gap, allowing Tribal courts jurisdiction over Indian and non-Indian perpetrators in a very limited set of domestic violence cases with an Indian victim on Indian land and a defendant who has substantial ties to the Tribe.  This provision would allow prosecution of cases that currently are simply not addressed, and it would do so in a way that guarantees all defendants comprehensive rights.

This VAWA reauthorization also seeks to ensure that services provided under the Violence Against Women Act are available for all victims, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Research has proven that domestic and sexual violence affects all communities, but victims of different sexual orientations or gender identities have had a more difficult time obtaining basic services. 

There is nothing radical or new about saying that all victims are entitled to services.  As someone who has been at crime scenes, I never asked and it did not matter whether the victim was a Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, or from a minority. We should be helping all victims, not discriminating among them.

The bill also proposes a modest increase in the visas law enforcement may request for immigrant victims who are helping their investigations.  These visas are key law enforcement tools that allow perpetrators of serious crimes to be brought to justice.  This provision was requested by law enforcement.  When the current visa cap is reached, as it has in each of the past two years, this tool is no longer available to law enforcement.  As a result, crime victims are less likely to come forward and cooperate with police and prosecutors, and violent offenders that might otherwise be prosecuted stay on the streets.   

We all know that while the economy is now improving, these remain difficult economic times, and taxpayer money must be spent responsibly.   That is why the bill consolidates 13 programs into four in an effort to reduce duplication and bureaucratic barriers.  It cuts the authorization level for VAWA by more than $135 million a year, a decrease of nearly 20 percent from the last reauthorization.  The legislation also includes significant accountability provisions, including audit requirements, enforcement mechanisms, and restrictions on grantees and costs.  I sought to consult with Senator Grassley and others in making these changes to authorization levels and for increased accountability, knowing how important that aspect of the program is to them.

At our Senate Judiciary Committee proceedings those who opposed the bill were given the opportunity to offer a substitute and other amendments.  Before the Committee, Senator Grassley offered a substitute, which was rejected.  In minority views Senator Kyl noted his disagreement with the provisions of the bill responding to the crisis of violence against Native women by incorporation a provision for the SAVE Native Women Act to provide domestic violence jurisdiction over those perpetrators with significant ties to the prosecuting tribe.  Opponents have noted their disagreement with the U visa provisions requested by law enforcement. Some opposed the provisions intended to ensure against discrimination in services based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Since the bill was passed by the Judiciary Committee I have continued to reach out to Senator Grassley and ask what amendments opponents wish to offer during Senate consideration.  While amendments to strike the tribal, U visa and sexual orientation provisions were not offered before the Judiciary Committee, I would understand if opponents wished to do so before the Senate.  I have reached out to try to construct a pathway for consideration of the bill pursuant to an agreement that is fair to opponents of these various provisions.  I hope and trust that we will be able to work with the Senate leadership to reach such a traditional agreement and that the handful of amendments that would decide whether these provisions remain in the Senate bill can be considered under time agreements and resolved. 

This is crucial, common sense legislation that has been endorsed by more than 700 state and national organizations.  Numerous religious and faith-based organizations, as well as our law enforcement partners, have endorsed this VAWA reauthorization bill.  The Violence Against Women Act should not be a partisan matter.  The last two times the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized, it was unanimously approved by the Senate. 

Although it seems that partisan gridlock is too often the default in the Senate over the last couple of years, it remains my hope that those who have voted for VAWA in the past will come forward and join our eight Republican cosponsors to support it. If so, we can pass our VAWA reauthorization with a strong bipartisan majority as we always have. 

Domestic and sexual violence knows no political party.  Its victims are Republican and Democrat, rich and poor, young and old, male and female, gay and straight.  Let us work together and pass strong VAWA reauthorization legislation without delay.  It is a law that has saved countless lives, and it is an example of what we can accomplish when we work together. 

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