Monday May 21, 2012

Last week’s tussle in Congress over renewal of the Violence Against Women Act served as a reminder of how little bipartisanship remains in Washington -- not that anyone needed their memory jogged. Election years once provided an opportunity for both parties to win points with voters by passing non-controversial legislation -- but not anymore.

The Violence Against Women Act, which provides taxpayer funds for the prevention of domestic abuse and the protection of victims, became law with the strong support of Democrats and Republicans in 1994, a national but non-presidential election year. It was reauthorized in 2005, which now passes for the good old days in Washington, again with solid bipartisan support. The act expired last year and has been caught in the middle of partisan sniping since, along with other worthy laws.

The bill passed the Senate 68-31, with Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who has been forthright about the domestic violence issues that marred his youth, joining 15 Republicans in voting for the legislation’s reauthorization. Democrats want to expand the law to protect gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender Americans from abuse, an effort most Republicans in the House and Senate (Mr. Brown excepted) interpret as an attempt to force them to vote against the popular legislation in an election year. The law should be expanded to protect those groups -- but not if it jeopardizes its reauthorization.

The House Thursday passed a version of the legislation that in turn picks a few fights with Democrats. The bill passed by a vote of 222-205, with only 29 congressmen, six Democrats and 23 Republicans, breaking with their respective parties.

House Republicans decided to drag the hot-button issue of immigration into the debate by eliminating a confidentiality agreement already in the law that guarantees the anonymity of immigrant women who break with abusive spouses who are legal residents. The problem the GOP leadership has with this provision -- a problem it didn’t have as recently as 2005 -- is that it would allow the abused woman to apply for legal status, which apparently constitutes "amnesty."

The House majority also opposes the Senate’s expansion of visas for undocumented immigrants victimized by domestic violence. Law enforcement authorities support this because it frees victims to testify in court against their abusers, but Repub licans are again putting ideology before fairness and the pursuit of justice.

Unaccountably, House Republicans objected to provisions in the Senate legislation that would improve protective measures for victims of domestic violence who live in subsidized housing and weakens provisions targeting the increasingly high rates of dating violence and sexual assault on college campuses. The latter problem has made headlines too often in recent months and clearly should be addressed.

The two bills will now go before what is still called the "reconciliation" process, and while there is room for give and take it’s all give and no take in Washington. As the Violence Against Women Act goes through the ringer, the bipartisanship that led to its passage 12 years ago will become an even more distant memory.