WASHINGTON Senate Republicans, accused by Democrats of waging "a war on women," are expected to yield to election-year pressure as early as this week and help renew a landmark law to combat domestic violence.
Many Senate Republicans complain that the White House-backed bill would excessively expand the 1994 Violence Against Women Act by providing protection to gays, immigrants and Native Americans.
Yet eight of the Senate's 43 Republicans, along with all 53 members of the Senate Democratic caucus - have co-sponsored the legislation, one more than needed to clear any procedural roadblocks in the 100-member chamber.
The showdown has drawn the interest of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who polls show is trailing Democratic President Barack Obama among women voters by at least 12 percentage points.
Republicans deny charges that they have been insensitive to women, and contend that Democrats have aired such charges to try to score political points with members of their liberal base.
The Senate could begin considering the measure to renew the Violence Against Women Act on Wednesday, with passage possible before a weeklong recess begins on Friday.
Yet if the two sides fail to quickly reach a time agreement on consideration of possible amendments, a vote on passage could be delayed until after the Senate returns on May 7.
"The only way we don't vote this week is if Democrats want to stretch it out and beat us up over it during the recess," a top Senate Republican said, asking not to be identified by name.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, in a floor speech on Tuesday, said, "there is strong bipartisan support" to renew the law, and offered to help reach a time agreement.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid fired back that he wants no part of any such deal if it is an attempt to "weaken the bill" with unacceptable amendments.
McConnell said, "There's no reason to have a fight over something nobody wants to have a fight over."
Democratic charges that Republicans have waged "a war on women" stem largely from failed Republican efforts earlier this year to block a White House mandate that requires most employers to offer free insurance coverage for women's contraceptives.
In February, all eight Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted against the proposed bipartisan renewal of the domestic violence law, drawing fire from women's groups.
RESPONSE TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
The Violence Against Women Act, reauthorized twice before with broad bipartisan support, created a comprehensive federal response to combat domestic violence.
Democrats want to renew the law and extend domestic abuse protections to gays, lesbians, transgendered people, battered immigrant women and Native Americans.
Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which tracks congressional and presidential election, said Democrats have the upper hand.
Duffy said many Senate Republicans "are undoubtedly feeling pressure" and Democrats could use any refusal to reauthorize the law as "a potent weapon" against them and their party during the general election campaign ahead of the November 6 vote.
"While there may be some legitimate objections to some aspects of the bill, they are complicated and not easily explained," Duffy said. "The political optics of voting against or stalling the bill are all negative for Republicans."
If and when the Senate passes legislation to renew the 1994 law, the measure would then go to the Republican-led House of Representatives for consideration.
Senator Charles Grassley, top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he expects the House to approve only a renewal of the current law, without the proposed Democratic expansion.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, one of the eight Republicans who have cosponsored the bipartisan bill to renew the law, said, "There's a lot of discussion about what are the women's issues. Is it contraceptives? Is it energy?"
"My view is that what women really want out of Congress is for us to get along and get things done," Murkowski said. "We have 61 cosponsors. Let's vote on it and move on."
(Reporting By Thomas Ferraro, editing by Richard Cowan and Philip Barbara)