Congress held a hearing Thursday to introduce a new version of the Violence Against Women Act. Now the question is: What will it take for that measure to become law? Again.

One witness said Republicans “seemed fixated” on gender identity making it that much more difficult and “hard to tell” if they support the new proposal.

“Today they seemed fixated on attacking trans women. That seemed to be the primary purpose today,” said hearing witness Sarah Deer, Muscogee (Creek) Nation. “I expected to get more poignant questions today about tribal jurisdiction from the Republicans but I didn’t get any. So it seems like there was some sort of distraction going on.”

The subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security held a hearing today to discuss the reauthorization of the act, going into its sixth year, since it expired on Feb. 15.

“Unfortunately, not only did VAWA expire without being reauthorized, but because of the foolish government shutdown, we even had a lapse in appropriations for VAWA earlier this year, which jeopardized funding for domestic violence shelters,” said Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-New York. “Because of its importance and success, VAWA was reauthorized on a bipartisan basis in 2000, in 2005, and in 2013.”

However the 2013 reauthorization of VAWA was supported by Democrats only. This time around, Republicans said this issue is “too important” and it should be a bipartisan issue.

Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, blamed the Democrats because they refused to include a simple extension at the end of the fiscal year. Instead, he said, they are using the law as a “bargaining chip” for other issues.

“For all the women that I know and saw, VAWA has helped. As a prosecutor, I can’t help but think about and remember all women who weren’t so fortunate. Women whose husbands or boyfriends put them in cemeteries because those husbands or boyfriends drank too much, or became jealous too much or because they liked to hit women too much,” Ratcliffe said. “And because of that I know what’s at stake if we don’t’ reauthorize VAWA.”

It was in that time that he said he never asked victims, their family members or other stakeholders if they were Republican or Democrat.

“I never asked because some things are more important than politics,” Ratcliffe said. “Violence is one of those things.”

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Arizona, who is also a domestic violence survivor, addressed how controversial this bill was in 2013 and now.

She blamed Democrats for not wanting to negotiate on the bill. She wants party affiliation to be put aside.

“We need to work in a bipartisan fashion to fix it,” she said. “This happens to so many women.”

Rep. Karen Bass, D-California, opened the hearing with gender as the focus.

“This is a gender-neutral legislation which responds to the needs and care of all survivors – men women and children alike,” she said.

And much of the hearing went in the direction of clarifying the language of and rhetoric of the bill when it comes to trans women, and protection for the LGTBQ communities.

Near the end, Deer, who is a professor at the University of Kansas, did testify about Two-Spirit people in Native communities.

However, she was surprised by the lack of questions about tribal jurisdiction and tribal governments from Republicans, especially when they support local governments.

“I think that I would’ve wanted to emphasize to them that tribal governments are local governments. And usually Republicans are all about small governments, local governments,” she said.

In the case of tribes, she said, Republicans “don’t extend” that same concept.

Deer pointed out that it is a new Congress, especially for those who do not have tribes in their state, representatives don’t have that education of tribal governments, tribal jurisdiction, or tribal courts. So it takes them a while to get up to speed.

And this was evident during the hearing as she explained to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-New York, that tribal courts “look at the same due process rights” but they scrutinize more because they have to look at three layers of law.

During this time of the reauthorization, Native advocates are looking to extend protection to Native children who often witness violence and are traumatized from it, and to tribal law enforcement who respond to the calls of domestic violence and they put themselves at risk to protect Native people.

The hearing concluded with words from former Vice President Joe Biden who “fathered” the act in 1994.

“When I wrote the VAWA in 1994, I believed it would be a lifeline. But this Congress has turned it into a political football,” he wrote. “It’s time to pass the reauthorization the VAWA. No more stalling. Lives are on the line.”

The House of Democrats held a press conference after the hearing and introduced the bipartisan reauthorization of VAWA.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said resistance to the bill was what kept it from getting reauthorized.

“We hope to receive more bipartisan support as the bill moves forward,” she said. “The bill preserves the vital progress that was made in the 2013 reauthorize to protect the LGTBQ community, Native American community and immigrant women. That was part of the fight. We couldn’t get the bill to the floor because there was resistance to protect immigrant, LGTBQ and Native women.”

Democrats are taking the same approach to what they did with the 2013 reauthorization of VAWA.

The Senate and House did their own bills and “that brought us success,” said Pelosi.

Nadler also said this bill getting introduced will meet the needs tribal communities are asking for.

“It helps protect Native American women by enhancing tribal criminal jurisdiction over certain types of crimes,” he said.

There will be a debate on the House floor in a few weeks. 

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com