WASHINGTON -- After winning a fight just last week to preserve contraceptive health insurance coverage for women, Senate Democrats on Thursday battled conservative Republicans who say they don't want to expand an 18-year-old federal law that created a national strategy to prevent domestic violence against women.
While Democrats say they're shocked at any opposition to renewing the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 with bipartisan support, opponents are trying to block the legislation because, they say, they fear it would broaden American Indian tribal rights and has too many protections for gay and illegal immigrant victims of violence.
A bill to renew the law, introduced by Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and co-sponsored by Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last month on a 10-8 vote, without a single Republican voting in favor.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said she was stunned by the panel's vote.
On Thursday, many of the chamber's female members pushed back, lining up to speak on the Senate floor in favor of the reauthorization and to confront its opponents.
"Never before had there been any controversy in all of more than a decade and a half, in all of this time, about this bill," she said.
So far, 58 senators have signed on to support the bill, including Crapo and Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Murkowski said the law must be renewed to ensure that prosecutors have the resources and expertise they needed to handle cases of domestic violence. She noted that from 2003 to 2009, Alaska had a rape rate 2.6 times higher than the national rate.
"Unfortunately, in as beautiful a state as I live in, our statistics as they relate to domestic violence and sexual assault are horrific: They are as ugly as they come," Murkowski told her colleagues. "Nearly one in two Alaska women have experienced partner violence. Nearly one in three have experienced sexual violence. Overall, nearly six in 10 Alaska women have been victims of sexual assault or domestic violence."
Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, who led the effort to preserve contraceptive coverage, expressed disappointment that, she said, women again are trying to defend gains won over the last 50 years.
"Every single minute, 24 people across America are victims of violence by an intimate partner -- more than 12 million every year. Forty-five percent of the women killed in this country die at the hands of their partner. ... This one shouldn't be about politics," Murray said.
The bill's opponents include Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Charles Grassley of Iowa. They question new provisions that include a ban on agencies that receive federal money discriminating against people based on sexual orientation. Grassley said he had seen no evidence of discrimination by organizations that received money through the program.
"The substitute creates so many new programs for underserved populations that it risks losing the focus of helping victims," he said during a hearing on the bill. "If every group is a priority, then of course no group is a priority."
While Leahy's aides wrote the language, Crapo said he didn't object to forbidding discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Another provision that Grassley and others questioned would allow tribes to prosecute non-Indians if they committed domestic violence or sexual assault crimes on reservations against Indians.
The National Congress of American Indians has launched a push to get senators to support the measure, saying Indian women are assaulted at twice the rate of the country as a whole and the offenders are often non-Indian males.
Leahy called it an epidemic of violence against Indian women.
Opponents say that granting that kind of tribal jurisdiction is unprecedented. They point to a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that tribes lack the inherent authority to arrest and prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on reservations.
Crapo said he was sympathetic to those who criticized a provision in the reauthorization bill that would expand the number of visas allowed for illegal immigrants who were victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and who worked with police to prosecute the offenders. The bill would raise the annual maximum number of such visas from 10,000 to 15,000.
Leahy said law enforcement had asked for the increase because it helped police fight crime. But Crapo expressed doubts.
"I am concerned about expanding the visas for any circumstance," Crapo said.
The law encourages collaboration among law enforcement, health officials and community organizations. Among other things, it's paid for grants to provide law enforcement with extra staffing, training and technical assistance. Domestic violence has decreased by 53 percent since the law's inception, Murray said.
The latest fight comes on the heels of last week's Senate vote rejecting a plan that would have allowed employers to opt out of the Obama administration's contraception-coverage mandate if they objected on moral or religious grounds.
Murkowski voted with Republicans to support the opt-out provision, but in an interview later said she regretted her vote.