Valentine's Day is Thursday. Flowers aplenty will be delivered, chocolates consumed, restaurants patronized.
All sweet and charming. But the best gift spouses and domestic partners everywhere can receive, whether they realize it or not, is agreement among our nation's lawmakers on the details of a long-delayed reauthorization of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. It expired in 2011.
Two sticking points have kept Act, the federal government's main tool for fighting domestic violence, from reauthorization: a difference of opinion among members of Congress over the authority of American Indian tribes to prosecute non-Indians who commit acts of domestic violence on tribal lands; and new protections for gay, lesbian, transgender and immigrant victims.
Reauthorization is important to local family violence prevention organizations all over the country because funding to prevent and combat domestic abuse is the central component of the VAWA. Federal funding pays for services such as transitional housing, legal assistance and law enforcement training.
The need for these programs is evident here in Bakersfield. The Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault has reported an increased demand for its services, including 322 requests for hospital accompaniment, in the past two years. But the agency has not seen an increase in calls to its hotline. A disparity between Bakersfield Police Department crime reports and the number of calls the Alliance's crisis hotline receives is a disturbing indicator that victims of domestic violence and sexual assault do not know where to turn for help.
Add to the mix the fact that domestic violence assaults and rape have always been among the most underreported crimes, and it becomes clear that funding for programs to reach those victims, and to convince them to come forward, is critical.
The VAWA's reauthorization, written by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Sen. Michael Crapo, an Idaho Republican, ran into roadblocks last year. Following passage by a significant margin in the Senate, it stalled in the House, primarily over objections to the Indian prosecutorial authority provisions.
The Senate hoped to pass the bill Thursday, but the vote was put off while it grapples with the tribal court provisions. It is expected to take up a vote on Monday.
House Republicans, meanwhile, seem to indicate the differences can be overcome. Representatives Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Darrell Issa of California have offered a compromise on the tribal authority issue, giving non-Indians the right to have their cases moved to federal court if they feel they cannot receive a fair trial in a tribal court.
Cole said a meeting with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., resulted in a "genuine effort to find common ground." We certainly hope so, because every minute in the United States, 24 women, men or children are victimized by domestic violence.