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Violence Against Women Act lapses during shutdown, putting help for victims at risk

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 1/3/2019 By Kate Irby, McClatchy Washington Bureau
Chuck Grassley, Dianne Feinstein sitting at a table: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) listens as ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) speaks during a contentious committee meeting on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court Friday Sept. 28, 2018.  in Washington, D.C. © Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) listens as ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) speaks during a contentious committee meeting on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court Friday Sept. 28, 2018. in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON - Dozens of crucial programs meant to help victims of domestic and sexual violence face uncertain, worrisome futures because of the partial government shutdown.

The Violence Against Women Act, regarded as an important tool to provide services for victims of domestic abuse, was supposed to be continued for another five years by September.

Instead, the law was extended only until Dec. 7, then to Dec. 21, when the shutdown was triggered by a disagreement between President Donald Trump and members of Congress over funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. That dispute stalled spending legislation affecting nine Cabinet agencies, including the Justice Department, which administers the act.

The shutdown means it will likely take longer for local communities and Native American tribes - which have already been approved to receive grants under the act - to actually withdraw the funds to help with domestic violence programs.

The act funds free rape exams, strengthened federal penalties against repeat sex offenders, training for law enforcement on responding to sexual and domestic violence incidents, such as identifying victims at serious risk, and the creation of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the Office on Violence Against Women in the Department of Justice.

The lapse also means additional funding to provide temporary housing to those victims will likely take longer.

And it means nonprofit organizations like the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence, which helps victims who don't speak English understand what help is available to them, will have to wait longer for a funding source meant to provide those services to more victims.

More than $7 billion in grants has been allotted to help victims since the law was enacted in 1994.

The Senate last month passed a budget that continued Violence Against Women Act funding into February, but the bill failed to pass the House after Trump said he wouldn't sign it. Democratic leaders in the Congress plan to push a budget similar to the Senate version, which would keep the act funded through Sept. 30. That bill does not include the level of funding Trump has said he wants for the border wall.

It's an issue that shouldn't even be an issue, advocates say. They're frustrated why the act can't be continued for five years, instead of lurching ahead.

Broad coalitions on both sides pushing for changes have made it difficult to get a bill everyone can agree on, said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, one of the panels charged with writing the act.

"If you went with our more conservative approach, you lose Democrats, and vice versa," Grassley said. "You get close sometimes, then someone wants to add something else."

This year, the changes advocates wanted were in a bill spearheaded by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. It would have expanded protections to Native American tribes, kept convicted domestic abusers and stalkers from having legal access to firearms, expanded economic security and housing opportunities to survivors of domestic violence and created more education and prevention programs.

Supporters, including the National Organization for Women, saw these as modest changes.

The bill had 181 cosponsors, all Democrats, and was never considered in committee. Some Republicans saw Second Amendment issues with that bill, according to Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who signed a letter with 45 other Republicans in September calling on House leadership to reauthorize the law.

"I believe it needs to be reauthorized permanently, so we're working on that," Stefanik said, adding she believed there would be more specifics on changes later this year.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., top Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat, said she didn't believe the short-term extensions were enough. She promised to re-introduce a bill like Jackson Lee's in the new Congress, and had hope a long term bill could be passed next year, when the House will be controlled by Democrats.

"We need to do more to keep weapons out of the hands of domestic abusers and protect Native American women, half of whom will experience domestic violence in their lifetime," Feinstein said.

It's not the first time the act has stalled over changes advocacy groups have called "modest."

When the law was being reconsidered in 2012, conservatives objected to protections applying to same-sex couples and to provisions allowing battered undocumented immigrants to claim temporary visas. The act wasn't reauthorized until 2013, when the provision for same-sex couples was included but not the one giving temporary visas to undocumented immigrants.

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

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