Connecticut Democrats spar with GOP over domestic violence law

Washington — Congress’ latest skirmish over what Democrats call “the war against women” has broken out over a law against domestic violence.

Democrats and Republicans are divided on whether to extend special protections under the Violence Against Women Act to help undocumented immigrants and victims in the gay and transgender community.

The Republican-led House will consider a bill Wednesday that would extend the law for five years without the expansion of protections.

But Democrats favor a bill — approved by the Senate last month with the help of Connecticut’s senators — that would extend the act’s protections to gays and deny funding to groups that discriminate against them.

The Senate bill would also protect undocumented immigrants who are abused and allow Indian tribes to prosecute non-Indian abusers in tribal courts. Current law requires them to be tried in state courts.

The original bill, approved in 1994, made sexual assault and violence against women a federal crime and steered millions of federal dollars to clinics and programs to help victims of abuse.

According to the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, battering is a big problem in the state.

In the one-year period from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, the 18 shelters run by the coalition tried to help more than 54,000 victims of domestic abuse.

On Tuesday, several Connecticut House members, all Democrats, held a press conference in Hartford to criticize the Republicans’ version of a Violence Against Women bill.

Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, complained that the Violence Against Women Act has been “politicized.”

“The Republican version strips out some of the most important protections for Native Americans, for immigrants and for gay and lesbian individuals,” he said.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, also attended the event in the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, as did Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.

“It is frankly unconscionable that the House Republicans would try to roll back the clock on this effort,” DeLauro said. “I’m old enough to remember the days before we had the Violence Against Women Act, and women often suffered in silence.”

Courtney said Republicans in the Senate voted for a stronger bill and House Republicans should, too.

“It is just so clear, as a nation, we have got to move forward with these efforts,” he said.

A group of about 40 women and women’s advocates attended the press conference. So did April Pierce, who was abused by her husband for 15 years.

She said she eventually found help at the Meriden-Wallingford Chrysalis Center.

“If it was not for their help I would not be here today,” Pierce said. “It is my wish for every domestic violence survivor to feel the power that I feel. It is my wish that (lawmakers) please pass the VAWA Act.”

Reps. John Larson, D-1th District, and Jim Himes, D-4th District, also spoke out Tuesday about the need to quickly reauthorize a strengthened Violence Against Women Act.

Hoping to shore up their support among women, Democrats have accused Republicans of a “war on women” because the GOP opposes a requirement that employers offer free birth control in company health care plans. Republicans have also proposed raiding a federal health care fund aimed at providing women with preventive services.

The fight over the Violence Against Women Act is the latest front in this campaign.

House Democrats will try to get a vote on an alternative bill that’s similar to the one approved by the Senate.

But even with the Connecticut House delegation’s support, that alternative is expected to fail. The Republican bill, sponsored by Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Fla., a former domestic abuse victim, is expected to pass.

The House and Senate will then have to try to agree on a final bill.