GM 13-017

Senate Passes VAWA Reauthorization with Tribal Provisions Intact; Defeats Two Amendments Seeking to Strip Tribal Authority

The Senate passed its version of the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization (VAWA) (S 47) on February 12, 2013, with a vote of 78-22. The bill contains the tribal provisions approved by the Senate in 2012—including expanded jurisdiction of tribal courts to prosecute non-Indian domestic violence offenders (provided they have certain ties to the reservation) and new authority to issue protective orders. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, though Republican leadership has reiterated its opposition to the bill due to the tribal provisions. Below is a summary of two defeated amendments and one accepted amendment to the tribal provisions of the Senate bill, and the outlook for the bill in the House of Representatives.

Grassley Amendment Defeated

The first attempt to strip the tribal jurisdiction provisions from the bill came in an amendment proposed by Senator Grassley (R-IA) on behalf of himself and Senators Hatch (R-UT) and Johanns (R-NE). The amendment was the proposed Republican alternative to the bill. Its language would have removed the expanded jurisdiction and protective order provisions. Instead, the amendment would have allowed tribes to seek protective orders in federal court, and would have established a program of up to $25 million to establish federal magistrates and assistant U.S. attorneys within Indian Country to hear only domestic abuse or assault cases.

Tribes opposed the amendment, which ultimately failed in a vote of 34-65 on February 7, 2013. Ten Republicans joined all Democrats and Independents in voting against the amendment.

Coburn Amendment Defeated

Senator Coburn (R-OK) offered an amendment that would have left the bill unchanged except for deleting language expanding tribal jurisdiction and authority entirely. The amendment—which was strongly opposed by tribal advocates—was supported on the floor by Senators Cornyn (R-TX) and Grassley. Senators Cantwell (D-WA), Leahy (D-VT), Murkowski (R-AK), and Blumenthal (D-CT) spoke against it.

Senator Coburn’s amendment was defeated in a vote of 31-59. Four Republicans joined Senate Democrats and Independents in opposing the amendment. However, Indian Affairs Committee Vice Chairman Barrasso (R-WY) and three other Committee members (Senators McCain (R-AZ), Hoeven (R-ND), and Fischer (R-NE)) voted in favor of stripping the tribal jurisdiction provisions.

Murkowski Amendment Included

The Senate-passed version of the bill contains language included by Senator Murkowski (R-AK) which would prevent the expanded jurisdictional provisions from applying to tribes in Alaska, other than the Metlakatla Indian Community (which has reservation land). While tribes in Alaska would not be able to exercise the new authority contained in the VAWA reauthorization, the Murkowski amendment ensured that current tribal authority to enforce protective orders issued by other entities (such as states) would remain unchanged.

Outlook in the House of Representatives

The House is not expected to take up the legislation quickly, as House leadership opposition to the bill remains. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) leads opposition to the bill, mainly over the tribal provisions. His opposition stems from his concerns that tribes and tribal courts would have jurisdiction over non-Indians, but are not subject to the Bill of Rights in the same manner as U.S. federal and state courts.

In the 112th Congress, Representatives Cole (R-OK) and Issa (R-CA) introduced a compromise bill hoping to induce opponents to proceed with the VAWA legislation. This bill would grant non-Indian defendants before tribal court for domestic violence charges the ability to file for removal to federal court if they believe their rights have been violated. This bill received support from tribal advocates as an acceptable compromise, and will likely do so again. It is reported that Representatives Cole and Issa plan to re-introduce this legislation in the near future.

House Republicans are likely to introduce their own version of the VAWA reauthorization without provisions expanding tribal authority, but advocates do not expect this to occur until mid-March.

For additional information on the VAWA Reauthorization and tribal jurisdiction provisions see our General Memoranda 12-130 (December 10, 2012), 12-067 (May 18, 2012) and 12-057 (April 27, 2012)