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Congress Extends Violence Against Women Act, Ending Standstill

February 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Almost 18 months after it expired, the House voted to renew the Violence Against Women Act and extend the law's protection to gays and lesbians, immigrants and Native Americans, among others. Judy Woodruff talks to Ashley Parker of the New York Times and Cindy Southworth from the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to the problem of domestic violence here in the United States and the end of a political battle over legislation about that issue.

It was the subject of long-delayed debate and a vote in the House of Representatives today.

WOMAN: The bill is passed. Without objection, a motion to reconsider is laid upon the table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: By 286-138, the House voted to renew the Violence Against Women Act almost a year-and-a-half after it lapsed. The bill extends the law’s protections to gays and lesbians, immigrants, Native Americans on reservations and victims of sex trafficking.

Illinois Democrat Mike Quigley:

REP. MIKE QUIGLEY, D-Ill.: Once again, we have to stand up and fight for equal protections for all victims. We are all in this together. These victims are not nameless, faceless members of some group of others. They are our friends, our neighbors, our family members. We are a nation built on justice, fairness and equal protection.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The original 1994 law provided grants for legal aid and transitional housing for victims of domestic violence. It also created funding for law enforcement training and assistance hot lines.

But the statute expired in 2011, as House Republicans resisted efforts to expand its scope to other groups.

Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn argued today for a more limited alternative.

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN, R-Tenn.: Making certain that, in a fiscally responsible, targeted and focused way, that those who need access to the help, the assistance, the funds are going to be able to receive the help, the assistance, the funds, the focus and the attention that they are going to need.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But cracks in Republican ranks appeared after President Obama’s strong showing among women voters in last year’s election.

And, today, moderate Republicans joined Democrats in defeating the GOP bill and passing the Senate version. The legislation now goes to the White House for President Obama’s signature.

For more on the political back-and-forth over the legislation and what it means for women and men going forward, we are joined by Ashley Parker, who covers Congress for The New York Times, and Cindy Southworth. She’s a longtime advocate and she’s vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Welcome to you both.

Ashley Parker, the Republicans, when they originally objected to this legislation back a year-and-a-half ago, what objections did they have and were those objections accommodated?

ASHLEY PARKER, The New York Times: Well, the issues they had about a year-and-a-half ago were they didn’t want to go as far as the Senate bill then had gone, which was extending protections to members of the LGBT community and to Native American women.

And, interestingly, these were basically the same objections that we saw this time around, although this time they obviously managed to work them out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what happened wasn’t that — so much that the language was changed, but that a number of Republicans changed their position?

ASHLEY PARKER: Well, what happened was Eric Cantor first started — the Republican leadership decided that, politically, especially after the 2012 elections, where they sort of took a drubbing with female voters, that the Republican Party didn’t want to be on the wrong side, so to speak, of this issue. They didn’t want to be responsible or seen as responsible, fairly or unfairly, for preventing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

So they said they were not going to pass anything in the House that didn’t have bipartisan support. Obviously, the House version of the bill didn’t have bipartisan support. Democrats were united in their support against it. And so that’s why they allowed this Senate version to come to a vote and ultimately pass.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Cindy Southworth, how much difference has the Violence Against Women Act made since it was enacted?

CINDY SOUTHWORTH, National Network to End Domestic Violence: It’s really been remarkable.

Just since 1994, we have seen almost a 50 percent increase in reporting, when — and that’s not 50 percent increase in incidents of domestic violence. It’s more victims reaching out. They’re calling the police. They know there are services available and they’re getting help.

We have also seen almost a 30 percent — or a 34 percent even decrease in homicides of women, and even more startling, almost 60 percent less homicides of men, primarily by their female partners when they felt they had no other choice.

And now that we have shelters and resources, they’re not having to resort to self-defense.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can directly connect that to this law, this act?

CINDY SOUTHWORTH: We can look at the time period and these remarkable things happening.

Some things, we can talk about in terms of housing units that we have created with Violence Against Women Act funds, hot lines that have opened because of Violence Against Women Act funds. So, some of it, we can directly connect to the Violence Against Women Act, and others of it is we can see what was happening before.

I started in this work before the Violence Against Women Act passed, and we ran a shelter on a tiny shoestring budget and turned more women away than we helped.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ashley Parker, is that consistent with the debate you have been hearing in the Congress and among members about this?

ASHLEY PARKER: Well, the debate on the floor we heard today was basically — no one came out against preventing the reauthorization of the bill.

It was House Republicans sort of arguing that their version of the bill went far enough. They said that their version of the bill did, in fact, protect — the phrase they always used was all women. So they were sort of arguing the same thing, but obviously the Democrats and a lot of women’s groups and human rights groups disagreed, and they felt the Senate version did a better job of actually extending protections to everyone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ashley — I’m sorry — Cindy Southworth, how much difference does it make to extend these protections to these groups we mentioned, LGBT, the Native Americans and so on?

CINDY SOUTHWORTH: When it comes to victims on tribal lands, it’s huge, because what’s happened previously is, if you’re a Native American woman injured on tribal lands by a non-Native, the tribal courts have no jurisdiction.

And when it comes to misdemeanor domestic violence cases, the federal courts are overwhelmed. So they weren’t taking these cases up, which meant you got off scot-free for harming a Native woman on tribal lands. Giving jurisdiction to the tribal courts means that we can hold them accountable. That’s pretty significant in terms of extending protections to tribal — to Native women on tribal lands.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just continuing with you on some questions about the law as it exists today and as it will exist, the new version, our staff here at the NewsHour talked today with several law professors who said, overall, the bill has had beneficial consequences, but they said there have also been some unintended consequences, namely, that it still leans in favor of having the perpetrator arrested, no matter whether the woman or the victim wants that to happen or not.

How do you see that issue?

CINDY SOUTHWORTH: First of all, the Violence Against Women Act doesn’t require mandatory arrest.

What it does do, though, is train police officers on how to look at what’s happening in the house, because if it’s mandatory arrest, you might arrest the wrong person. Sometimes, a woman has been beaten and you can’t see the bruises, but you see scratch marks on the offender because of the self-defense wounds.

So the Violence Against Women Act doesn’t have a mandatory reporting focus to it, but it has got a mandatory training focus to it, which is important for police on the scene to assess. And we have done a lot of work around issues beyond law enforcement within the Violence Against Women Act. There’s housing provisions. There’s a transitional housing grant program. There’s a sexual assault services program.

So while we have spent a lot of time in the last 20 years working to change the justice system, we are really focusing more and more on issues beyond criminal justice. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, that was another complaint we heard from those who support the law overall, but say that it still leans too far — it puts so much money into law enforcement and prosecution, and not nearly enough money into those other areas that you mentioned.

CINDY SOUTHWORTH: I’m only smiling because I have yet to see the day where we have so much money in the violence against women movement. I would love that day.

What it really means is, we would — we would like more money in all those other service areas. We need more housing. We need more hot lines. We need more advocates. We need to beef up those services. We don’t need to remove police officers from being able to respond. We have already seen that, in just one day in the United States, over 70,000 adults and children get help from local domestic violence programs.

And on the same day, 10,581 times, a phone rang and someone asked for a bed, a shelter, an attorney, a counselor. They told a perfect stranger, and they couldn’t get help.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ashley Parker, how much of this came up in the House debate?

ASHLEY PARKER: You know, not a ton of that on the debate in the floor today.

A lot of the debate sort of focused on Democrats stepping up time and time again and asking for members to come together to reach bipartisan compromise and get this through, and also a lot of members, both Democrats and Republicans, coming and telling personal stories of a woman in their district who was beaten or faced domestic abuse and either who met a tragic end because they couldn’t get the protections necessary, or in some cases were able to use these programs to get help.

So it was sort of a little bit more of a personal touch, as well as a plea to come together for something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, at the end of it all, the House of Representatives voted to extend the Violence Against Women Act. And we look for the president to sign the legislation.

Cindy Southworth and Ashley Parker, we thank you both.

ASHLEY PARKER: Thank you.

CINDY SOUTHWORTH: Thank you so much.