Divided U.S. House approves domestic violence bill

WASHINGTON Wed May 16, 2012 6:32pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill on Wednesday to renew the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, despite a White House threat to veto the measure on the grounds it is inadequate and would undermine existing law.

Republicans insisted their measure would bolster needed protections to combat domestic abuse. They also accused Democrats of opposing the bill merely to rally their liberal base as women's issues already have been prominent in advance of the November 6 congressional and presidential elections.

"We owe all Americans - and especially victims of domestic violence - a more honest and responsible approach," House Speaker John Boehner, the top U.S. Republican, said in acknowledging compromise is needed on the issue.

"I urge Senate Democrats to put the political games aside and come to the table to work out our differences so this critical legislation can be sent to the president for his signature," Boehner said.

The House approved the bill, 222-205. Six Democrats joined 216 Republicans in voting for it while 23 Republicans joined 182 Democrats in voting no.

The measure would renew for five years the funding of programs to combat domestic violence and help victims while also toughening penalties. In addition, it would increase resources for investigations, prosecutions and victims' services.

President Barack Obama favors a bipartisan version passed by the Democratic-led Senate last month with the support of all of the chamber's 17 women, 12 of whom are Democrats and five of whom are Republicans.

The Senate bill would provide the same annual $680 million funding level as the House version but also would expand the law to explicitly include safeguards for gays, lesbians, illegal immigrants and Native Americans.

Democrats said those proposed protections were ignored or inadequately addressed in the House bill. They also said the House measure would remove some protections in existing law and unnecessarily create requirements that would delay or deny protection of battered immigrants.

Democratic Representative John Conyers denounced final changes to the House bill this week as "a fig leaf meant to cover the simple truth" that the measure fails to protect "some of the most vulnerable victims of violence."

The White House, in its veto threat, urged "the House to find common ground with the bipartisan Senate-passed bill and consider and pass legislation that protects all victims."

Republican Representative Virginia Foxx, urged passage of the House bill by saying, "We all want to stop violence against women. We are strengthening the Violence Against Women Act, not weakening it."

GROUNDSWELL OF OPPOSITION

But Democrats said more than 300 groups oppose the Republican bill, including the American Bar Association, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Organization of Women, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Conference of American Indians.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said, "Local law enforcement officials have said that this Republican House bill will 'impede criminal investigations, undermine prosecutions and interfere with victim safety.'"

Democrats challenged Republicans to produce a list of organizations that back the bill. Republicans declined to do so.

The Violence Against Women Act, first written by Vice President Joe Biden when he served in the Senate, was reauthorized twice before by Congress with broad bipartisan support.

Yet it ran into trouble this year as women's issues have repeatedly popped up in congressional and presidential campaigns amid a debate over such matters as abortion rights and access to contraceptives.

Democrats and feminist groups have accused Republicans of waging "a war on women" by being insensitive to females on a number of fronts, including pay equity and healthcare.

Republicans deny the charge and accuse critics of trying to divert attention from what they call Obama's mishandling of a struggling economy.

Both sides are jockeying for position to win the vote of women in the November 6 elections. Women voters have long favored Democrats, although they narrowly bucked the trend and went to Republicans in the 2010 congressional election.

A USA Today/Gallup Poll in 12 hotly contested states recently showed that women favor Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, 52 percent to 40 percent, while men back Romney, 50 percent to 42 percent.

(Reporting By Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Bill Trott)

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