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It has been a long, strange journey on Capitol Hill for the Violence Against Women Act. Today, after months of debate, the House finally passed an extension of the law, known as VAWA, and sent it to the president. It helps combat sexual assault and domestic violence. But the law had gotten tangled up over other hot-button political issues.
NPR's Ailsa Chang explains what happened.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Right now, the Republicans have an image problem with women. They needed to pass something to fight off accusations that they're just not a woman-friendly party. But the problem was, the House bill to renew the Violence Against Women Act kept getting pummeled for ignoring several groups of females: lesbians, immigrants and Native Americans.
Here's Gwen Moore, a Democrat from Wisconsin, during the floor debate.
REPRESENTATIVE GWEN MOORE: I would say as Sojourner Truth would say: Ain't they women? They deserve protections. We talk about the constitutional rights. Don't women on tribal lands deserve the constitutional right of equal protection, and not to be raped and battered and beaten and dragged back on to Native lands because they know they can be raped with impunity? Ain't they women?
CHANG: Moore has been an emotional supporter for the Senate's VAWA bill and has even shared her own story about being a rape survivor. What she's talking about here is a section in the more expansive Senate bill that lets tribal courts exercise jurisdiction over non-Native American abusers. Right now, cases involving tribal victims and non-tribal suspects have to go to state and federal courts. And that can be a real problem.
Lisalyn Jacobs of Legal Momentum, a women's advocacy group, says cases often go stale when state or federal prosecutors have to drive hours to get to crime scenes on remote Indian reservations.
LISALYN JACOBS: At which point, you witnesses are not there. Your victim may or may not be there.
CHANG: But supporters of the House bill said there are constitutional problems with letting tribal courts expand their jurisdiction. And they had another gripe about the Senate version: What it says about lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. The Senate explicitly added language to VAWA that says no one will be denied grants, regardless of sexual orientation.
REPRESENTATIVE SCOTT PERRY: You single out and, and, and take out other people that might otherwise should be qualified, so to speak.
CHANG: That's Scott Perry, a Republican from Pennsylvania. He says he has no issue with lesbians, but intentionally naming specific categories of women might unintentionally shut out others. And that's why he voted for the leaner House bill.
PERRY: I don't like the classifications of, you know, violence of women, as opposed to violence of a redhead or, you know - violence is violence.
CHANG: Violence is violence, but others say if you don't specifically mention the LGBT community, it won't get the funding it needs. That's been happening right now. Domestic violence counselors report some states have actually routed money away from organizations that focus on gays and lesbians because they couldn't find specific VAWA language protecting that community.
Sharon Stapel heads the New York City Anti-Violence Project, a group that works with LGBT victims.
SHARON STAPEL: Certainly, I think that there is a lack of awareness about intimate partner violence and sexual violence being as much or more of a problem in LGBT communities as it is in any other community.
CHANG: While today was a victory for many domestic violence prevention advocates who wanted to see a more robust version of VAWA, today also marked kind of an embarrassing moment for House Speaker John Boehner. This is the third time in less than two months House leaders have failed to pass a bill supported by a majority of Republican members.
As with the fiscal cliff bill and the bill for Superstorm Sandy relief, VAWA passed with more Democrats voting for it than Republicans.
Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.
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