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Senate poised to vote on VAWA: News analysis

At the end of last week it, was announced that the Violence Against Women Act, federal legislation to fund programs and services for victims of domestic and sexual violence, including many in Minnesota, had 60 co-sponsors, enough to prevent a filibuster in the Senate. Democrats in favor numbered 53, with seven Republicans vowing to support reauthorization. The bill, passed in 1994, has been reauthorized twice, but partisan wrangling over its provisions resulted in an unresolved stand still last December.

Toward the end of the session, the Senate passed a bill to reauthorize VAWA and include three provisions that would close gaps and extend protections to groups that had no or limited protection under VAWA -- lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender victims of domestic and sexual violence, Native American women victimized on tribal lands by non-Native perpetrators, students on college campuses and undocumented immigrants. The Senate bill went on to the Republican controlled House, where it wasn't brought forward for a vote. The House, however, passed its own version of VAWA, but without the additional provisions. Late last year, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and his Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, promised to reintroduce VAWA in the new Congress saying that the legislation deserved top priority. Last week's victory over a potential filibuster was a hopeful sign for supporters of the bill.

"The Leahy-Crapo VAWA bill seeks to protect all victims of domestic and sexual violence, including tribal women, college students, and members of the LGBT community," Leahy said in a statement last Friday. "For nearly 20 years, the programs supported by VAWA have been a lifeline to so many. They deserve swift action in Congress." Protections for undocumented immigrants in the form of increased numbers of U Visas, a means for victims of abuse to gain legal status in the U.S., were dropped from the Senate's most recent version.

Last Tuesday, Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., introduced an almost identical bill in the House, but how it will fare remains to be seen. It currently has 158 co-sponsors -- none of them Republicans, according to Open Congress, an online resource tracking legislative activity. Moore has been a proponent of the reauthorization of VAWA and has spoken openly of her own experience as a victim and survivor of domestic and sexual violence.

Advocates for Native American women have spoken out about gaps in VAWA and their ability to seek prosecution of non-Native perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence who commit crimes on tribal lands. Sarah Deer, an assistant professor at William Mitchell College of Law and a member of Amnesty International USA's Native American and Alaska Native Advisory Council, has appeared before Congress to speak on behalf of more comprehensive provisions for Native women under VAWA.

"The epidemic of violence against Native women is alarming. At least one in three Native women will be raped in their lifetime, a statistic that is much higher than the national average. Native women need our support: an inclusive VAWA is one critical step towards reducing the devastating rates of violence that occurs against women on tribal lands," she wrote in an article for Amnesty International at the end of last year.

Locally the vote in the Senate, expected to take place today, is being carefully watched as funding will impact numerous programs throughout the state of Minnesota.

What does this all have to do with Lake County?

"(If VAWA is not passed) the impact would be devastating for survivors of sexual and domestic violence right here in Lake County and across the nation," said Steph Ceffey of North Shore Horizons, a Two Harbors-based organization that serves domestic and sexual violence victims.

"To deny services to domestic violence victims who are LGBT couples, undocumented immigrants, and tribal communities while they face life-threatening violence is to deny people basic human rights. And yes, we do serve these populations here in Lake County."