Senate approves tougher penalties on domestic violence

The Senate passed the Violence Against Women Act on Thursday in a 68-31 vote, with all of the no votes coming from Republican men.

Ten Republican men and all of the female Republican senators voted in favor of the bill, which would increase penalties on criminals convicted of domestic violence and provides additional funding to programs to reduce sexual assaults and domestic violence.

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The legislation had been caught up in the battle for female votes in the presidential election, and GOP leaders decided to allow the bill to proceed to limit any political damage from it.

The legislation faces a rockier road in the House, however, where rival legislation has been offered by Republican lawmakers.

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) praised the chamber's passage of the vote. 

“I am thrilled that the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act passed the Senate today,” said Hagan. “I'm relieved that my Senate colleagues have put partisanship aside to move this important legislation forward. VAWA is essential to the protection and safety of women, and I urge the House to act swiftly to provide continued protection to victims of violent crimes."

Republicans in the Senate had objected to several other provisions in the bill.

They opposed an increase in visas for victims of domestic violence seeking protection who are illegal immigrants, as well as broadened authority for Native American communities to fight domestic violence and sexual assaults. Republican senators also disagreed with language in the bill that prohibited discrimination of domestic violence victims because of their sexual orientation.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), an opponent of the bill, said it was an overreach of federal authority.

“Everyone agrees that against women is reprehensible,” Lee said. “The Violence Against Women Act reauthorization has the honorable goal of assisting victims of domestic violence but it oversteps the Constitution's rightful limits on federal power.

“It interferes with the flexibility of states and localities that they should have in tailoring programs to meet particular needs of individual communities,” he said. “And it fails to address problems of duplication and inefficiency.”

Republicans tried to push an alternate version of that bill that did not include the contentious provisions but that legislation failed.

Senate Republicans were a bit split on the measure, however, as eight members of their caucus were co-sponsors of the legislation.

A day earlier Senate Republicans agreed to let the Democratic-backed bill move forward to a final vote. Republicans in the chamber said they did not want to take the bait and oppose the bill allowing Democrats to label them against women's rights and continue to accuse them of waging a “war on women.”

Democrats pushed back hard on critics of the legislation.

“I believe that opposing the bill before us would defy every ounce of commonsense that I have in my body,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).  “I am proud sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act as are most of my colleagues here in this body because it is unfathomable that any individual could oppose efforts to ensure women and children are free from violence.”

Just before the vote, the chamber voted on three amendments to the bill, all of which failed in votes that required a majority of 60 senators.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar's (D-Minn.) amendment to set a minimum amount for rape kit testing funds failed in a 57 -41 vote, while a similar measure from Sen. John Cornyn's (R-Texas) that increased funding but did not set a minimum amount failed 50-48. Cornyn’s bill also would have established a forensic registry for sexual assaults.

A third amendment from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) failed 36-63. It would have increased the total funding for testing backlogged rape kits and also kept funding for VAWA at the same amount before it was reauthorized in an effort to not increase the country's deficit.

Every Democrat voted for the bill. The Republicans who voted yes were Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Scott Brown (Mass.), Dan Coats (Ind.), Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Dean Heller (Nev.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), John McCain (Ariz.), Rob Portman (Ohio), Olympia Snowe (Maine), David Vitter (La.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and John Hoeven (N.D). 

Vice President Biden, who was the original author of VAWA, praised the bill's passage. Biden drafted the legislation in 1994 while he was a senator.

"In 2012, we should be beyond questioning the need for the Violence Against Women Act," Biden said in a statement. "This law has been overwhelmingly successful since it was first enacted 17 years ago to improve the criminal justice response to this violent crime and to assist those who experience this abuse. Since then, the law has twice been reauthorized with the broad support of members of both parties. It should still be bigger than politics today."

Biden urged the House to swiftly pass the legislation.

"Now the House needs to act so the president can sign this vital legislation as soon as possible," Biden said.

This story was updated at 6:52 p.m.