The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday to renew the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). It now heads to the House for what will likely be an ugly battle over its renewal; President Obama used part of his State of the Union address last night to urge the House representatives to pass it.
The VAWA's been passed twice before since being written by now-VP Joe Biden in 1994. Among other things, it provides money for investigating and prosecuting violent crimes against women and created the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice, which in turn funds dozens of other programs. It's sort of indisputably a good thing, and has historically always passed with bipartisan support.
Not this year. Twenty-two senators voted against it, all of them male and all of them Republican. And both of your Texas senators, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, appear on that list.
It's not too surprising that some Republican lawmakers chose to vote against the bill, which they've been fighting since last year. Former Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison even led the call back in April for an "alternative" Violence Against Women Act, co-sponsored by Cornyn and Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
At the time, that Republican trio focused on the fact that their proposed version of the bill would have increased federal funding for the testing backlogged rape-kits -- there are 20,000 of them in Texas alone, and it's probably going to cost the state millions to test them all.
In speaking publicly about the bill, Hutchison and Cornyn very studiously did not mention the other things that Republicans don't like about the new VAWA, namely all the stuff about protecting gays, Native Americans and immigrants. A proposal to explicitly cover LGBT victims of domestic violence in the act passed, as did a provision that will allow tribal courts to prosecute non-native people for violent crimes. The bill also includes some expanded coverage for immigrant victims of domestic violence, regardless of their legal status, although a previous proposal to increase the number of visas Homeland Security can issue to those victims ultimately failed.
So, no surprise that Cornyn and Cruz both chose not to support the Senate's final version of the bill. What's really interesting, though, is how each man justified his "no" vote. Or, in Cruz's case, didn't really bother to justify it much at all.
Cornyn seems genuinely concerned with getting some version of the VAWA renewed. He's said before that the bill is "critical" and called untested rape kits "a scandal." His main sticking point is the provision that allows non-Native Americans to be tried in tribal courts, which he's called "unconstitutional" and "bowing to special interests."
Cornyn's is a noxious argument. As it stands now, non-natives who commit violence against Native Americans on tribal land cannot be touched by tribal law. The New York Times has a heartbreaking story about Diane Millich, a Ute woman who was viciously beaten by her white husband for years. Tribal authorities couldn't touch him, and she appealed to federal law enforcement with no result. Fortunately, Millich worked in a federal office, the Bureau of Land Management. After her husband stormed that office and opened fire on her and her colleagues, law enforcement finally saw fit to step in.
Cornyn is arguing that women like Diane Millich are a "special interest group," rather than American citizens who deserve full and equal protection under the law. He also wrote an op-ed last year attacking the Democrats for "exploiting" the VAWA "for political gain," presumably by trying to protect gay people. Cornyn is no fan of the gays, at one point infamously comparing gay marriage to "the union of a man and [a] box turtle."
But at least Cornyn genuinely seems to care about protecting some victims of domestic violence -- the non-gay, non-Indian ones, anyway. Compare Cornyn's long public battle to pass his version of the VAWA with Ted Cruz. Cruz, displaying that trademark Tea Party dickishness we've all come to enjoy, voted against the bill and then issued a cursory one paragraph statement defending his vote.
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In his statement, Cruz's office calls him tough on crime, especially "sexual predators who target women and children."
"Nevertheless," the statement goes on, "he voted against this federal law because stopping and punishing violent criminals is primarily a state responsibility, and the federal government does not need to be dictating state criminal law."
That's it. Cruz reduces a complicated and painful public battle over domestic violence to a state's rights issue, then moves right along. He doesn't even seem to understand what the VAWA was about, conflating domestic abuse with "sexual predators."
Cornyn has promised to try to help "fix" the VAWA as it heads to the House. Cruz, meanwhile, was busy appearing on Sean Hannity to sputter about the State of the Union.