April 26, 2012 at 6:04 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Senate passes LGBT-inclusive domestic violence bill

(Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Senate approved legislation on Thursday that aims to strengthen domestic violence programs and extend their coverage to LGBT victims.

Legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, was approved by a 68-31 vote on a bipartisan basis. Republicans had help up the legislation for weeks after it had been reported out by the Senate Judiciary Committee before finally allowing it to come to the floor.

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. 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 underserved communities, including 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.

No Democrats voted against the legislation. Among the Republicans who joined Democrats in supporting the bill were Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and David Vitter (R-La.). Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who’s been recovering from a stroke, was the sole senator who didn’t vote.

Prior to the final vote, the Senate beat back by a vote of 37-62 an alternative version of VAWA reauthorization, sponsored by Hutchison, that would have stripped the legislation of its LGBT provisions.

No Democrat voted for this measure, but some of the same Republicans who voted for this version also voted “yes” on the final vote: Alexander, Ayotte, Coats, Corker, Crapo, Heller, Hoeven, Hutchison, McCain, Portman and Vitter.

Republicans who voted against both measures were Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), likely to signify they oppose VAWA reauthorization in any form.

Praise came from LGBT advocates, who applauded senators for working in a bipartisan way to address domestic violence.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, commended the Senate for the bipartisan nature of the vote.

“Senators from both sides of the aisle came together today to ensure that all domestic violence victims, including those who are LGBT, will not face discrimination when they seek victim services,” Solmonese said. “We applaud the Senate for recognizing the importance of this bill and taking bipartisan action, and we call on the House to do the same.”

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, emphasized the importance of the legislation for LGBT victims of domestic violence.

“Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are not immune from this violence, and their distress should not be further heightened by a lack of proper response from service providers or law enforcement,” Carey said. “Imagine being assaulted, scared and in pain — and then being turned away from receiving basic services and care. No one should ever be subjected to such inhumane treatment.”

Carey said VAWA reauthorization would “go a long way toward ensuring everyone has access to life-sustaining resources,” thanking the Senate for passing the bill and urging the House “to swiftly follow suit.”

Data exists showing that LGBT people are victims of domestic violence and suffer from discrimination when seeking help at shelters. According to a 2010 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 44.6 percent of LGBT domestic violence survivors were turned away by a shelter and 54.4 percent of LGBT survivors seeking an order of protection were denied help.

Whether the legislation can pass the Republican-controlled House remains to be seen. Observers have told the Washington Blade that passage of the bill — at least the form passed in the Senate — is unlikely in the lower chamber.

Vice President Joe Biden, who authored the 1994 version of the measure, also commended the Senate in a statement and urged the House to take action.

“In 2012, we should be beyond questioning the need for the Violence Against Women Act,” Biden said. “This law has been overwhelmingly successful since it was first enacted 17 years ago to improve the criminal justice response to this violent crime and to assist those who experience this abuse. Since then, the law has twice been reauthorized with the broad support of members of both parties. It should still be bigger than politics today.”

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

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