February 2, 2012 at 5:51 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Senate panel approves LGBT-inclusive domestic violence bill

A Senate panel approved LGBT-inclusive legislation on Thursday that would extend and strengthen programs working to combat and prevent domestic violence.

The Senate Judiciary Committee reported out the legislation, known as Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, on a party-line vote of 10-8. The bill aims to strengthen and improve programs authorized under the existing law — first enacted in 1994 — to assist victims and survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.

Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) spoke highly of VAWA in his opening statement and said no other statute “has done more to stop domestic and sexual violence in our communities.”

“As a prosecutor in Vermont, I saw firsthand the destruction caused by domestic and sexual violence,” Leahy said. “Those were the days before VAWA, when too often people dismissed these serious crimes with a joke, and there were few, if any, services for victims. We have come a long way since then, but there is much more we must do.”

According to a statement from the committee, among the ways the bill builds on existing law is  setting aside grant money for programs addressing sexual assault crime and enhancing training for officials to identify high risk offenders who could commit domestic violence homicide.

But the legislation also has enumerated protections for victims of domestic violence in the LGBT community. The bill would make grants available for programs providing services to LGBT victims of domestic violence. Additionally, the bill has non-discrimination language prohibiting VAWA grantees from discriminating on the basis sexual orientation or gender identity.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, thanked the committee in a statement for passing legislation that has specific language related to the LGBT community.

“Victims of domestic violence need assistance, not irrational barriers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Solmonese said. “We thank the members of the Judiciary Committee that have recognized the discrimination LGBT domestic violence victims face when seeking assistance. Specifically, Chairman Leahy has shown great leadership in reauthorizing VAWA and ensuring that the bill would explicitly make grants available for service providers doing innovative work with LGBT victims.”

But Leahy also chided Republican members of the committee for voting against the legislation for reasons that possibly alluded to the LGBT protections in the legislation.

“Some are saying we seek to protect too many victims,” Leahy said. “One thing I know from my time as a prosecutor, and I would hope it is something we can all agree on, is that all victims count. All victims deserve protection. That is a message we have heard loud and clear from our states and something I hope is common ground.”

According to the committee, the panel vote marks the first time when it has reported out any version of VAWA on party-line basis. A statement from the panel says no GOP committee member voted in favor of the bill despite weeks of negotiations and the adoption of three Republican amendments.

When the bill was first passed —and in two subsequent times when the legislation was reauthorized — the measure passed the committee on a bipartisan basis, according to the committee.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking Republican on the panel, said in his opening statement that the LGBT language was among the reasons why he couldn’t bring himself to support the bill.

“The Leahy substitute would prohibit discrimination by grantees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” Grassley said. “Of course, I agree that shelters and other grant recipients should provide services equally to everyone. But advocates of this provision haven’t produced data that shelters have refused to provide services for these reasons. This is true even after we were told they would send a report on the subject. The provision is a solution in search of a problem. Instead, it is only a political statement that shouldn’t be made on a bill that is designed to address actual needs of victims.”

According to the Human Rights Campaign, a survey published last year by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found LGBT people often experience discrimination when seeking assistance in domestic violence cases.

The survey found 85 percent of service providers say they’ve worked with victims who were denied services because they were LGBT. Among the advocates who’ve worked with LGBT people who were denied services, 91 percent had worked with victims that had been denied direct services from a domestic violence organization and 64 percent had worked with victims that were denied services from law enforcement.

Although no Republican committee members voted for the bill, it does have support from other GOP senators who aren’t on the panel. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) is an original co-sponsor of the legislation. Among the 34 co-sponsors of the legislation are Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

The office for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) didn’t immediately to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on when a floor vote for the legislation would take place.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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