WASHINGTON — While efforts to head off the so-called “fiscal cliff” — a double whammy of tax increases and automatic spending cuts — will dominate the agenda when Congress returns to work next week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said he is hoping to find time for action on other key legislation.
Two bills — aimed at curtailing violence against women as well as trafficking in human beings — need to pass Congress before the end of the year, the Democratic senator said. But one of these pieces of legislation, a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, remains mired in a contentious battle between the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-dominated House.
The other bill, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, was first enacted in 2000 and has been reauthorized three times since. Designed to combat human trafficking both worldwide and domestically, it authorizes assistance to foreign countries while also allowing for action against nations that do not meet certain minimum standards, and protects minors seeking asylum.
The latest reauthorization of the human trafficking law expired in September 2011, and, while Leahy’s committee acted at the time to renew it, the full Senate has yet to vote on the matter.
Although the pending bill has the support of 52 senators, including 14 Republicans, Leahy aides attributed the delay to the need to strike a deal with the House that would send the legislation to President Obama for his signature. The House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., has been referred to five different committees since it was introduced almost 15 months ago.
“Trafficking is an affront to human dignity and a generator of human suffering that we cannot ignore,” Leahy said. “We cannot further delay action while this injustice continues not only elsewhere in the world, but also here at home.”
According to a report by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 2,500 of alleged incidents of human trafficking were reported between Jan. 1, 2008 and June 30, 2010 in the United States. Most — 82 percent — involved allegations of sex trafficking, including more than 1,200 reported incidents of adult sex trafficking and more than 1,000 reported incidents of child sexual exploitation.
Meanwhile, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) was first enacted in 1994, with bipartisan support, to combat domestic and sexual violence. But it is now being challenged by some House Republicans over three new provisions in the Senate bill that would protect illegal immigrants, same-sex couples, and American Indians.
The Senate version of VAWA, including these three provisions, passed last April with the bipartisan support of 68 votes. The House version, sponsored by Rep. Sandy Adams, a Florida Republican, was adopted last May on a largely party-line vote of 222-205. It does not include the three Senate bill provisions, which, Adams’ chief of staff, Charlie Keller, characterized as “discriminatory against women.”
“(Rep.) Adams specifically included language in her bill to guarantee the VAWA funds would be available for all victims and not carved out for special interest groups,” Keller said in a telephone interview.
Keller contended that, under the Senate bill, a heterosexual woman victimized by sexual violence would not be eligible for funding set aside for a specific group of people.
But Leahy suggested it is the House bill that is discriminatory. “Let’s not pick and chose who is a victim,” he said. “I was a prosecutor for eight years, and when I went to a crime scene at 2 a.m., we never asked ourselves whether the victim was an immigrant, it was just a victim.”
Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, backed an alternative version of the VAWA bill in the House, and characterized the current standoff as an example of “congressional dysfunction.”
Declared Welch, “The bill has bipartisan support in Senate, but it has been changed in the House as an anti-immigration and anti-lesbian bill. They literally rewrote the bill to deny these women protection.”
Leahy acknowledged that in “the last couple of years, it has been difficult to pass anything in a bipartisan manner. But every woman, Republican or Democrat, voted for it — VAWA — in the Senate.”
Even though the latest authorization of VAWA expired in November 2011, funding to carry out many of its provisions is continuing under a stopgap measure that Congress passed earlier this fall. Ultimately, the differences over the legislation may fall to a House-Senate conference committee to resolve, although time is running short for action before the 112th Congress adjourns for the last time in December.
The Senate-passed measure would expand efforts to reach Indian tribes, who face rates of domestic violence higher than those of the general population; allow more battered illegal immigrants to claim temporary visas; and include same-sex couples in programs serving people affected by domestic violence. It would also expand free legal assistance to victims of domestic violence and extend the definition of violence against women to include stalking.
Since the law was first enacted the annual incidence of domestic violence has dropped by more than 50 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. However, domestic violence remains among the most underreported crimes.
According to the Vermont Network Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence, between 2010 and 2011 the incidence of sexual violence dropped by almost 20 percent in the state. But the rate of domestic violence increased by 4 percent.
In 2011, a total of 1,025 victims of sexual assault and 7,317 victims of domestic violence sought services from the member programs of the Vermont Network. In addition, 747 people were sheltered with a total of 22,392 shelter nights provided.
Mounira Al Hmoud is affiliated with the Boston University Journalism Program.MORE IN Central Vermont
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