GOP concedes on domestic violence bill

Senate Republicans, seeking to avoid a public policy dispute with Mitt Romney, will let legislation on domestic violence pass the upper chamber despite having concerns about its constitutionality. 

They will let House Republicans battle with Democrats over controversial language expanding special visas to illegal immigrants seeking protection from abuse, a provision specifically naming same-sex partners as eligible for domestic violence programs and another empowering American-Indian tribal authorities to prosecute abuses alleged to have happened on their reservations. 

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GOP leadership officials say they will not take the election-year bait laid out by Democrats and block the bill, which would give President Obama and his allies more ammunition to argue that the Republican Party is waging a “war on women.”

Senate Republicans lost political leverage last week when Romney’s campaign said the candidate supported the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. He stopped short of endorsing the bill Democrats crafted, however.

Republicans are pushing for an alternative version of the bill sponsored by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that does not include the contentious items, and will likely demand votes on amendments to strip them from the Democratic legislation. 

But with only 47 members, Senate Republicans lack the votes to rewrite the bill. That gives Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his deputies two choices: block it or let it go through. 

All Republicans on the Judiciary Committee opposed the reauthorization bill when it was approved by the panel on Feb. 2.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he was “really taken back by some of the changes in laws dealing with Indian reservations,” calling it “unacceptable and very bad policy.”

A Republican aide cited a Congressional Research Service report that warned expanding the prosecutorial power of tribal authorities could violate constitutional guarantees on due process and double jeopardy.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a member of the Judiciary panel, said the bill would pass despite his colleagues’ concerns.

“I think you’ll see bipartisan support for the Violence Against Women reauthorization,” he said. “I have every confidence it will be passed.”

Asked whether Republicans would thwart the bill if they failed to remove the contentious language, Cornyn said: “We have a bicameral process whereby those things will get worked out, hopefully in the conference committee.”

Cornyn said he would not vote to bottle it up in the Senate. 

“I don’t expect there will be a problem,” he said. 

Eight Senate Republicans have co-sponsored the Democratic legislation, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Scott Brown (Mass.), Dean Heller (Nev.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

House Republicans plan to move their own version of the bill that presumably would not include the proposals related to immigrants, gay couples and Indian reservations. House leaders have met with female lawmakers to discuss legislative strategy and plan to announce a path forward soon, according to GOP aides. 

McConnell said Tuesday morning that Senate Republicans will not get in the way.

“There’s no reason to have a fight over something nobody wants to have a fight over,” he said. “We’re happy to work toward a reasonable time agreement to pass it in short order.”

Senate Republicans don’t want to become a lightning rod in the contest between President Obama and Romney over female voters. They are also aiming to capture control of the Senate this fall.

Romney’s campaign has made clear that it is not interested in seeing the Violence Against Women Act blow up in Congress.

“Gov. Romney supports the Violence Against Women Act and hopes it can be reauthorized without turning it into a political football,” said Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the campaign.

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said Democrats would pressure House Republicans to adopt the Senate bill and criticize them for holding up the reauthorization.

“We will be happy to point out as long as it takes the inability of the House to act on the Violence Against Women Act. We won’t let a day go by where we don’t put pressure on the House to move forward,” said the aide. “Republicans would be wise to let this go through the Senate and not count on House GOP counterparts to hold it up and strip out provisions.” 

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), criticized Democrats for how they are handling the bill. He accused them of politicizing legislation that the Senate approved by unanimous consent in 2005. 

“The Violence Against Women Act has always received bipartisan support, and we don’t expect that will change. Frankly, the Senate Democrats’ publicly announced strategy of twisting this law for partisan gain should disturb every American,” Steel said.

Senate Republicans have also closed ranks with Romney on Obama’s proposal to extend for one year low-interest loans for low- and middle-income college students, despite misgivings about the program. 

Romney endorsed Obama’s proposal on Monday. On Tuesday, McConnell told reporters that Republicans would likely support it. 

“We’re in the process of discussing it amongst ourselves. I don’t think anybody believes this interest rate should be allowed to rise. The question is, how do you pay for it — how long do you do the extension?” he said. 

House Republicans and the White House are wrestling with the same question. 

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former secretary of Education, said he supported Romney’s call for a one-year extension but has concerns about the policy as a long-term fix. 

“It’s not good for the long term because we don’t have the money,” he said.  

He noted that a permanent extension of the student loan rates proposed by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) would cost $60 billion over 10 years. 

 The interest rates will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1 without congressional action.

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