Sen. Marco Rubio – a strong contender for the GOP vice-presidential nomination – is finding his vote against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act to be a source of controversy, reports Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida
Rubio was on the short end of a 68-31 vote in the U.S. Senate on Thursday. And with women’s issues hotly contested in the run-up to the presidential election, Floridians Saturday marched in Tallahassee, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, vowing a strong turnout at the polls on such matters as abortion, contraception, women’s health care and services for those who have been battered or raped.
“If they want war, they will get war,” shouted Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, at the Old Capitol. “It won’t come with guns or knives, but something the Republicans fear even more – our votes.”
The nationwide “Women Unite” rallies were planned long before Thursday’s Senate vote on VAWA, but the atmosphere has only heated up since. Florida’s senior senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, supported the measure.
Rubio said via his website that he hopes to vote “yes” when a House-Senate conference version of the bill returns to his chamber.
He wrote that he supports reauthorizing VAWA, but voted against the Senate plan at the request of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The coalition, he wrote, is “strongly concerned” about the new requirement that 30 percent of STOP [Services, Training, Officers, Prosecutors] grant funding be diverted to sexual assault services and away from domestic violence programs “without evidence that the increased funding will result in enhanced prosecutions or additional cases reported.”
Meanwhile, the Florida Council on Sexual Violence – which had stood to get more funding under the bill Rubio opposed – said it was “deeply disappointed” in his vote, especially after meeting with his staff twice about the measure.
“We realized yesterday, with deep sadness, that Senator Rubio failed to grasp both the importance of VAWA to individual victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking and its importance to the nation’s response to these devastating crimes,” said FCASV director Jennifer Dritt in a statement released Friday. “It is our fervent desire that Senator Rubio find a way to support the conference report on VAWA with these STOP grant funding set-asides intact.”
VAWA was first passed in 1994, sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden, and began as a largely bipartisan effort. This year’s reauthorization debate, though, has become highly polarized – especially as Biden and the White House sought to expand victim services to gay people, extend temporary visas to illegal immigrants who have been abused, and allow tribal courts to handle cases of abuse of Native American women on reservations by non-Indian suspects.
The amendment that Rubio opposed, in fact, was designed by Republican Senators to lower the amount of temporary visas and remove the gay and lesbian provisions in the reauthorization bill.
A spokeswoman for Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Leisa Wiseman, said her group lobbied Rubio not to change the funding because domestic violence is far more prevalent than sexual assault statewide, by 113,378 to 9,885 in 2010, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
According to the White House, incidents of domestic violence have dropped more than 60 percent since the passage of VAWA 18 years ago.
On the other hand, the Florida Council on Sexual Violence, which serves rape victims, noted that rape is the most under-reported crime in America, “and unlike progress made to address domestic violence, sexual assault prosecutions have not increased over the past 20 years.”
Rubio also objected to the amended version of VAWA, he wrote, because it would take “decision-making out of the hands of the state-based coalitions on the ground who know best about how to serve their communities.”
The domestic violence coalition’s Wiseman agreed, saying “States need decision-making authority that ensures that funds are distributed based on the unique needs of survivors to their state…We absolutely support VAWA, as we know Senator Rubio does.”
Meanwhile, as the reauthorization battle returns to the House, the sexual violence council lauded Florida Congresswoman Sandy Adams, the lead sponsor of a competing House version, “for including strong sexual assault provisions, including modest set-asides, in her VAWA reauthorization legislation” introduced Friday.