By Laurie Kellman
WASHINGTON — The Senate overcame election-year gender politics Thursday to pass a bill renewing the government’s main domestic violence program.
The 68-31 vote marked the first time since the Violence Against Women Act first passed in 1994 that its renewal has drawn opposition in the Senate, reflecting the increasing polarization of the chamber and hair-trigger political sensitivities over women’s issues in this presidential and congressional election year.
“In 2012, we should be beyond questioning the need for the Violence Against Women Act,” Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement. He urged the House to act quickly so President Barack Obama can sign the renewal into law.
But the path there could be equally tricky. Majority Republicans are writing their own version, which is likely to resemble a GOP alternative widely rejected by the Senate.
Twice renewed without opposition in the Senate, the bill of programs to prevent domestic violence and sexual abuse ran headlong into the partisan warfare that has shut or slowed legislative business since the 2010 elections.
Not helping smooth the way: the broader political fight for pivotal female voters and the Democrats’ election-year narrative that accuses Republicans of waging a “war on women.”
The bill would reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act for five years with funding of $659.3 million a year, down $136.5 million annually from the last act, which has expired.
The money pays for such programs as legal assistance for victims, enforcement of protection orders, transitional housing and youth prevention programs.
Democrats sought to expand the law by adding protections certain to draw conservative opposition.
One would explicitly name gays, lesbians and transgender people to the group of those protected under the law. Another would raise the cap on visas granted to abused legal and illegal immigrants from 10,000 to 15,000. A third would expand the authority of Native American officials to handle cases of abuse of Indian women by non-Indians.
The bill drew 61 co-sponsors, more than enough to block filibusters and set up a political dare to Republicans: Vote no, and you’re waging a “war against women.”
The strategy raised hackles among Republicans, who insisted they had women’s interests at heart, too.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the narrative was a distraction from issues Democrats would rather not discuss, such as the economy and gas prices.
“We face an abundance of hard choices,” said McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee and a leading supporter of Republican hopeful Mitt Romney this year. “Divisive slogans and declaring of phony wars are intended to avoid those hard choices and to escape paying a political price for doing so.”
To prove it, Republicans offered alternatives that would delete the references to gays, lesbians and transgender people, keep the cap on visas at its current level and allow tribal authorities to go to federal court for protective orders on behalf of abused Native American women.
But the Senate rejected the options overwhelmingly. And in the end, even its sponsor, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas — and McCain — were among the 15 Republicans who voted for the final Democratic bill.
The 31 Republicans who voted no said they support the spirit of the act but had problems with the Democratic rewrite up for consideration.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., for example, said he opposed the bill in part because he believes abused women are best served by state and local governments.
And Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said he voted ‘no’ because he believes the tribal provisions in the bill would be unconstitutional. Under the measure, Native American officials would be allowed to arrest, prosecute and imprison non-Indians, who cannot vote in tribal elections or have a say in crafting laws that could be used against him, Kyl said.