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Violence Against Women Act: A political opening for Democrats?

Violence against women – once a bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill – is shaping up as a largely partisan clash.

Violence against women — once a bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill — is shaping up as a largely partisan clash, as Democrats push to extend a legislative winning streak on women’s health and rights.

Six female Democratic senators were joined by Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (R) on the Senate floor Thursday to offer their support for the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which expired in September.

The bill expands funding for state and local governments to respond to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and (a new category) stalking.

Two previous iterations of the six-year bill, originally drafted by then-Sen. Joseph Biden in 1993, have been renewed with solid bipartisan support. However, the new bill cleared the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 2 without a single GOP vote.

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Indications are that both sides are playing politics. 

Democrats have added provisions, such as expanding aid to same-sex couples and undocumented immigrants, that make the bill a nonstarter for many Republicans. In a presidential election year, Democrats are using the Republicans’ opposition to bolster their claims that Republicans are waging a “war against women” — a bid to woo women voters. 

Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to force the Democrats to pay a political price for moving the bill. They want an open amendment process that would allow them to take out parts of the bill they say are unpalatable. 

Democrats say their additions to the bill are necessary and question the Republican decision to dig in. 

“It signals that there well could be a filibuster. Now, why?” says Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California. “The police department responds to a call regardless of who it is. And the service should be there regardless of who it is.”

Republicans respond that their amendments to the bill were “summarily dismissed” in the committee, said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas.

“I think we need to take up the bill, and I think we need to have an open amendment process” on the Senate floor, said Senator Hutchison, who supports reauthorizing the law.

An open-amendment process is now rare in the Senate.

Specifically, Republicans are concerned about how the bill addresses domestic violence among Native Americans, as well as potential abuses of the system by illegal immigrants who claim domestic abuse to access temporary visas. The legislation also doesn’t do enough to ensure “more money goes to victims rather than bureaucrats,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a statement.

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But Republican opposition could come at a cost. 

President Obama now has a “cavernous” electoral advantage with women,” according to a new poll released by Pew Research Center President Andy Kohut at Monitor breakfast for reporters on Wednesday. Mr. Obama leads both Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney by roughly 20 percentage points among women, according to Pew’s polling.

A recent New York Times/CBS poll showed a smaller gap of around 10 percentage points in favor of Mr. Obama.

Democrats feel they have won a series of messaging battles on similar topics in recent weeks. The Senate beat back an amendment to transportation legislation that would have allowed employers to opt out of a new federal health-care mandate for their employees, if they have religious objections. Republicans called the measure a protection for religious freedom. Democrats dubbed it an assault on women’s access to contraception.

Then, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) backed off his support for legislation requiring Virginia women seeking an abortion to undergo an invasive ultrasound procedure after the issue stirred a national debate.

In addition to today’s discussion on the Senate floor, the Democratic National Committee blasted out a flood of statements from members of Congress on Wednesday knocking GOP presidential front-runner Mr. Romney for comments about Planned Parenthood.

In an interview with a St. Louis television station earlier that day, Romney said he would end federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Democrats panned the interview as a wish to “get rid” of Planned Parenthood altogether — an aim that Romney denies.

“When Mitt Romney says he would, ‘get rid of’ Planned Parenthood, it demonstrates  how completely out of touch he is with that the reality that millions of American women depend on these health centers for vital services,” said Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D) of Pennsylvania, in a statement.

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Planned Parenthood, a nationwide group that provides health-care services for women, including abortion, has long been a partisan Rorschach test. Democrats see it as a key provider of inexpensive health care, particularly for women, while Republicans have long blasted the group as little more than a backdoor for the federal government to fund abortions.

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Now, legislation dealing with violence against women is set to test the strength of the Senate’s recent bipartisanship on transportation and small-business legislation against the lure of scoring political points on both sides.

Still, six Republicans have endorsed the legislation, including Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Murkowski of Alaska, and Mark Kirk of Illinois, who is on leave.

Calling the Violence Against Women Act “a ray of hope” for rural Alaskan women during a speech from the Senate floor, Senator Murkowski urged that the GOP’s concerns be heard “so we can have, we should have, an overwhelmingly bipartisan bill.”

“This is too important an issue for women and men and families,” she added.