By Suzanne Gamboa
WASHINGTON — Native American leaders are making a push this week to muster support from at least two more senators for a bill that addresses violence against women and includes measures to specifically help victims who are American Indian or Alaska Native.
As of Tuesday, 58 senators had signed on as supporters of the Violence Against Women Act, including its sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Although that means a majority of senators support the act, it lacks the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster should one be launched if the bill reaches the Senate floor.
At a legislative summit of the National Congress of American Indians Tuesday, tribal leaders were given a list of senators, all Republicans, who represent states with reservations and tribal communities. The tribal leaders were told to press those senators to support the bill during meetings this week.
The search for the additional supporters comes as Democrats in Congress seek to make women's rights an election-year issue following Republican efforts to limit the government's authority to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives. It was unknown whether that debate would provide momentum for the legislation considered by many to be a landmark law in protecting women.
"I hope so," said John Dossett, attorney for the National Congress of American Indians. "Once we get the 60 votes it will be clear to the (Senate) majority leader (Harry Reid, D-Nev.) that he has the votes to move it to the floor."
The House has not taken action on any similar or companion legislation.
The act, first approved in 1994, expired last September. Although the act has been reauthorized several times, this year's update ran into some Republican opposition in committee. A few senators criticized provisions regarding visas for immigrant victims of violence, language specifying services for gay and transgender victims.
The measures also would give American Indian tribes authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit violence against Native American women, which raises concern among some opponents about giving tribal courts increased power over defendants who are not tribal members. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that Native American tribes do not have authority over people who are not Native American, even when the crime happens on a tribal reservation and involves a Native American.
"They ruined that bill as far as I'm concerned," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Tuesday. "They added things I can't support."
Native American and Alaska Native women are 2.5 times more likely than other U.S. women to be battered or raped, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Many are domestic violence victims whose abusers and assailants are not Native Americans.
Dossett said that has prevented tribal officials from prosecuting abusers to help prevent repeat violence. Often the crimes are not serious enough for the federal government to step in. Violence often must escalate before a perpetrator is prosecuted.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she's aware of the concerns raised by her fellow GOP colleagues about tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians. "I'm hopeful this does not derail this legislation. This is too important for us," she said.
Other senators on the tribal leaders' list interviewed outside Senate chambers Tuesday did not immediately know where they stood on the legislation.
Other issues raised at the summit included ongoing negotiations over the transportation bill, now on the floor in the Senate.
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, urged summit attendees to remain united in a goal to get increased spending on transportation, important for construction of roads on reservations and in tribal communities.
"In an environment of tight federal budgets some people expect us to become divided rather than maintain unity," Keel said.
Tribal officials also got a chance to bid farewell to Tom Perrelli, associate U.S. Attorney General. Perrelli leaves the Department of Justice Friday. He is credited with working to improve public safety on tribal reservations.
Perrelli said he's not leaving the department because he is tired of the work, but because his wife just had twins and they now have four boys under 6. He said he would continue to fight to end sexual assault and violence.
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