In 1994, during the Clinton administration, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act. That landmark legislation authorized funds for rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, the establishment of a national hot line for victims, and measures such as education programs for judges, law enforcement officers and prosecutors.
The law remains critical in battling domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking, of which women remain the overwhelming targets. In the past, Congress readily supported reauthorization of the act, and even expanded its scope to address the needs of disabled women, older women and teens.
But this year's reauthorization has been stalled over the U.S. Senate's effort to better protect Native Americans, undocumented immigrants and LGBT abuse victims. The Senate bill was passed with bipartisan support in April, but the House version, adopted in May, eliminated the additional protections at the insistence of the GOP's right wing.
It's simply indefensible to exclude victims because of their immigration status, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity. Under no circumstances should America become a place that tolerates women being raped or beaten unless they're heterosexual U.S. citizens, not of Native American heritage.
Undocumented women risk deportation if they report abuse, which their abusers exploit. Nonheterosexual women are often turned away from domestic violence shelters and denied orders of protection. And Native American women face higher rates of sexual assault, mostly at the hands of non-Indians.
Tribal courts have no authority to prosecute non-Indians. As a result, victims have few resources for protection, and abusers often are never held accountable. The Senate's bill grants limited jurisdiction -- a constitutional sticking point for many Republicans, such as Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, who noted that "the Bill of Rights does not apply in tribal courts." But a smart, new proposal offered by two Republicans, including Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, would give defendants the option to move the case to federal courts.
"There are 535 members of Congress, and 534 of them could go on the Sioux Reservation, commit a crime and not be subjected to local jurisdiction," Cole told Indian Country Today Media Network. "Most American communities have local jurisdiction; Native Americans do not. It's not right."
Nationally, an average of three women are murdered every day by a current or former partner. An estimated 1.3 million people are raped or physically assaulted annually by someone they know. Besides the human toll, the health care, employment, legal and other costs are staggering.
The Violence Against Women Act has long enjoyed bipartisan support. Vice President Joe Biden, then a U.S. senator from Delaware, introduced the original bill, which garnered 225 cosponsors, including vocal support from Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat.
You'd think the GOP opposition would eagerly rally behind female crime victims, given the backlash faced from remarks that cost two Senate candidates their elections. In defending staunch opposition to abortion, Missouri Rep. Todd Akin spoke of "legitimate rape" and Indiana's Richard Mourdock insisted that pregnancies that result from rape were intended by God.
Lawmakers have had the common sense to put aside differences to back this act for the past 18 years. It's critical that they do so again before year's end so that the legislative process won't have to start all over again. Women's lives and safety are on the line.