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Dispute over tribal authority moves vote on Violence Against Women Act to Monday

| Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, 8:56 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Senators tussled on Thursday over whether Indian authorities should be able to prosecute non-Indians in domestic abuse cases, an issue that has delayed passage of legislation to renew the federal government's main law in the fight against domestic violence.

A final vote on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act is scheduled for Monday.

The 1994 act expired in 2011, but reauthorization was blocked last year by differences between the Democratic-led Senate, which is seeking to extend new protections for gays, lesbians, immigrants and Native American women, and Republicans in the House, who said the Senate bill goes too far.

Advocates of the act have been more optimistic this year because Republicans trying to shore up their losses among female voters in the November election say they are eager to pass a bill.

The Senate had hoped to pass its bill on Thursday, but a final vote was put off so that it could debate, and defeat, a substitute by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that would have altered the provision on tribal courts. Grassley, saying subjecting non-Indians to Indian courts would raise significant constitutional problems, proposed that more federal prosecutors and magistrates be placed in Indian country for domestic violence and sexual assault cases. He would have allowed tribes to petition a federal court for protection orders to exclude an abuser from Indian land.

How to deal with an alarming level of violence against women on tribal lands, often perpetrated by non-Indian partners, was a major sticking point last year when the Senate and House passed different bills.

The Senate bill would recognize tribal authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit domestic violence against their Indian spouses or partners.

Indian women often live hours away from the nearest federal prosecutor, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a key supporter, and for those abusing women in these isolated places that “equates to nothing short of a safe haven for them.”

The National Congress of American Indians says that 39 percent of Indian and Alaska Native women will be subject to violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, well above rates for other races. It says U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute half of violent crimes in Indian country, and two-thirds of those cases involved sexual abuse.

“Let's not undercut the provisions to help protect Indian women,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “The best legal views of which I am aware believe these provisions are both constructive and constitutional.”

Grassley's amendment, which would have taken steps to reduce fraud and overspending in programs covered by the Violence Against Women Act and tighten rules that govern immigrants subject to domestic abuse, was defeated 65-34.

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