WASHINGTON — Congress on Thursday gave Indian tribes new power to prosecute non-Indians in tribal courts for any crimes linked to domestic violence.
Ending a 16-month battle with the Senate, the House of Representatives voted 286-138 to approve the plan as part of an expansion of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. Republican opponents relented after failing to win enough votes to reauthorize the law without the provision.
The bill now goes to President Barack Obama, who said he’d sign it.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Deborah Parker, the 42-year-old vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes headquartered in Washington state’s Snohomish County, who came to the Capitol last year to recount how she’d been sexually and physical abused while growing up on the reservation.
Parker and other tribal officials lobbied hard for a new law in response to a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that tribes had no authority to try or punish non-Indians. The case involved a Washington state man whom the Suquamish Indian Tribe ordered to appear in tribal court after he was cited on charges of resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer.
“This is a long-delayed and hard-won victory for millions of women in this country,” said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who made the issue a top priority after Congress allowed the law to expire in 2011.
The law, once signed, will allow tribes to try non-Indians only for rape and other crimes involving domestic abuse. While many opponents say the reauthorized law would be unconstitutional, backers say a narrow expansion probably would survive a court challenge.
Backers of the new law say it’s needed because too many local authorities don’t want to investigate crimes committed on reservations. And they say the situation has become severe: Indian women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average, and more than one in three will be raped in their lifetimes, according to the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women. That rape rate is twice as high as it is for other ethnicities.
The bill also would expand federal investigative assistance to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender victims and would allow more illegal immigrants who are victimized to get temporary visas to stay in the United States.
Murray estimated that at least 30 million more women will be eligible for help.
In a statement, Obama credited the Violence Against Women Act with saving “countless lives” and changing the way the nation has responded to domestic abuse.
“Renewing this bill is an important step toward making sure no one in America is forced to live in fear, and I look forward to signing it into law as soon as it hits my desk,” the president said.
Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Pasco said “there is no doubt” that the law would be struck down, and he accused Democrats of hijacking the law to advance other political agendas. He said he’d always voted to reauthorize the law before but that it had gotten caught up in a “political stampede” this time around.
“In a tribal court, constitutional protections and the Bill of Rights do not apply,” Hastings said. “Under the bill, a non-Indian citizen tried in a tribal court has no right to appeal to a federal court, lacks the guarantee of due process, has no right to an impartial jury of one’s peers and more. A vote in favor of the bill was a vote to deny U.S. citizens their Bill of Rights.”
Congress spent much of the last session at loggerheads over the issue, with Murray and other Democrats accusing Republicans of dragging their feet in protecting women.
After the Senate voted 78-22 two weeks ago to reauthorize the bill as one of its first acts in the new Congress, it became clear that Republicans wanted to avoid a replay of the fight.
The House voted on two bills: In the first, 60 Republicans joined Democrats to defeat an amendment that would have reauthorized the law without adding the extra protections for Indian women, immigrants and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender victims. In the second, 87 Republicans backed the broader Senate bill.
Murray credited moderate House Republicans as helping to turn the tide by demanding a vote on the Senate plan.
Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said she’d backed the Senate plan as a way to help more children escape domestic violence.Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009 rhotakainen@ mcclatchydc.com