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Accusations fly in Senate over Violence Against Women Act

By Ted Barrett, CNN
updated 8:40 PM EDT, Thu March 15, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Several Republicans accused Democrats of election-year politics
  • Sen. Jon Kyl: Republicans don't oppose reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act
  • He cites "significant budget restraints" vs. the effort to expand the legislation
  • Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, accused reporters of "carrying (Chuck) Schumer's water"

Washington (CNN) -- In a series of floor speeches Thursday, a group of mostly Democratic women senators made a high-profile and at times emotional appeal to Republicans to support an expanded Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). In doing so, they suggested Republicans were blocking the bill because it would extend its protections to illegal immigrants as well as gays and lesbians.

Many Republicans were furious at that suggestion and accused Democrats of election-year politics by trying to paint Republicans as anti-women.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California made an appeal to support an expanded Violence Against Women Act.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California made an appeal to support an expanded Violence Against Women Act.

"Let me put this on the table," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California. "This bill includes lesbians and gay men. The bill includes undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse. The bill gives Native American tribes authority to prosecute crimes. In my view these are improvements. Domestic violence is domestic violence."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the lone Republican to join in the floor speeches, said domestic violence victims in her state are often isolated in rural communities "where there is no law enforcement and there is no shelter and there is nowhere to go," she said. "The Violence Against Women Act is, I think, a ray of hope for those who service victims of domestic violence and sexual assault within our villages."

"Nobody opposes the reauthorization of this legislation," Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second-ranking Senate Republican, told CNN. "If you follow the Judiciary Committee work on it, the questions had to do with the additions that have been made to this bill related to illegal immigrant visas, related to the additional sums of money and grants that would be available and the like.

"So what Republicans are focusing on is how to make a bill that should be reauthorized functional in this day and age of significant budget constraints so we can still accomplish the goals of the legislation," Kyl continued. "I really resent the implication by some of my Democratic friends that if you're trying to improve the bill that somehow you are for violence against women. That's reprehensible."

Asked whether the provisions about undocumented immigrants and gays and lesbians needed to be pulled from the bill, Kyl said: "I don't know. Reasonable people ought to be able to sit down and work these things out."

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, accused reporters of "carrying Schumer's water," when they asked him whether he opposed the bill because it would include illegal immigrants and gays and lesbians. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York is the Democrats' top message strategist in the Senate. Republicans think it was his idea to suddenly put VAWA on the floor, just after high-profile battles over other women's issues -- like abortion and contraception -- were in the news.

"I'm always for the Violence Against Women bill," said Sessions who voted for a GOP alternative bill that was defeated in the Democratic-majority Judiciary Committee. But he said every time VAWA is up for reauthorization, "if you don't agree with everything that's in it, they just attack you as being anti-women."

Sessions added that he was not aware until Thursday the Democrats bill extended to lesbian, gays and illegal immigrants but he acknowledged voters could misread Republicans' views on the bill.

"I think we should be sensitive to the impressions we cast by our votes and so forth but fundamentally you can't vote a piece of legislation you don't think is sound," Sessions said.

One bit of evidence that Democrats were, in fact, trying to use the issue for their political advantage was a fundraising appeal e-mailed to supporters by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

"Today we're seeing another stunning GOP attack on women's rights," exclaimed the appeal which asked for donations of $5 or more for the committee's "Protect our Women's Rights Fund."

In an interview with CNN's Dana Bash Wednesday about the recent fight over contraceptives, Murkowski warned her party is in danger of angering women voters.

"I think my party is in an unfortunate place right now, as viewed by many, many women in this country who are feeling anxious about what they believe to be attacks on women's health," she said.

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