On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate began debating the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, which is largely backed by Senate Democrats, and discussing its Republican alternative, authored by Chuck Grassley of Iowa and our own Kay Bailey Hutchison. In preparation for that debate, Hutchison took to the Senate floor Wednesday and did something rather extraordinary: She talked for ten minutes without once mentioning the three key things that Republicans would like to change about the proposed Democratic version of the bill, namely the gay parts, the immigrant parts and the American-Indian parts.
As has been widely reported in recent days, the Violence Against Women Act was first passed in 1994 and has generally been as noncontroversial and bipartisan as laws come. But this time around, Republicans have objected to the Democrat-backed version of the renewal bill, which would add more visas for immigrants -- legal and illegal -- who are victims of abuse, would explicitly state that gay, lesbian and transgendered people are protected by the act and would allow non-American Indians who commit domestic violence on tribal land to be prosecuted by tribal authorities.
Hutchison didn't mention any of that, though. Instead, she focused on the less controversial (and sorely needed) changes she's proposing: increasing support for sexual assault investigations and rape-kit testing. As we mentioned recently , there are thousands of untested rape kits in Dallas County and throughout Texas. But because law enforcement agencies still aren't complying with a law that requires them to report their totals, we still don't even know precisely how many there are, and actually testing them may still be years away.
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Hutchison didn't outline the other provisions of the Republican version of the bill, which would put a cap on visas for immigrants at 10,000 a year, compared with the 15,000 the Democrats want. The Republican version also doesn't specify that violence against gays, lesbians and transgendered people is covered by the act. Instead of being able to prosecute domestic violence against against non-native people, tribal authorities would have to go to federal court for orders of protection.
But as the background material for the bill makes clear, that might not be good enough. Violence against tribal members by non-native people is a serious problem, but non-American Indians can't currently be prosecuted by tribal authorities and U.S. attorneys decline to prosecute a little more than half of violent crimes that happen in Indian country. In practice, that means non-tribal members have a disturbingly good chance of getting away with domestic violence.
Although the debate might get awkward, there's no real chance, even in this super-heated political climate, that something called the Violence Against Women Act won't be renewed. Among Hutchison's female colleagues, support for the Democratic bill is near-universal. As the Morning News reported, of the 17 women in the Senate, five of them Republicans, Hutchison was the only one to not sign on to the renewal.
But even as Hutchison dodged any discussion of the Republican alternative's more controversial proposals, she too called for the bill to be renewed. "We will go to conference on this bill," she said in her testimony. "And we will come out with a good bill, if everyone will cooperate."