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McCaskill calls for area's Republicans in Congress to help pass Violence Against Women Act

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 22, 2013 - U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., took the unusual step of calling on a St. Louis area congressional counterpart – new Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin – to help break through the resistance in the U.S. House against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, which has been in place for more than a decade.

“What a great opportunity for her to lead that new freshman class of Republican congressmen,’’ McCaskill said Friday, alluding to Wagner’s recent selection as the top House Republican for her party’s new members.

The senator made her challenge as she outlined her frustration over the House’s lack of action – which the senator said will result in the end of the Act’s funding, if not reauthorized this year.

Later Friday, Republicans did announce their own scaled-down proposal for the Violence Against Women Act. Democratic House leaders swiftly denounced it, siding with the version passed earlier this month by the Senate.

Appearing at St. Louis’ Carnahan Courthouse, McCaskill noted that the Senate had passed a similar version in 2012, only to see it die in the House. Both Senate-passed bills, she said, had bipartisan support. This year's Senate version passed 78-22.

But U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., voted against the latest version, telling reporters during a stop in St. Louis last week that the GOP objections dealt largely with some new provisions – notably one that would allow the prosecution of non-native Americans accused of assaulting a native American on an Indian reservation. Blunt questioned its constitutionality.

Other provisions add women who are illegal immigrants, and include violence against gays or lesbians as crimes eligible for the Act's funding.

McCaskill said Friday that such Republican objections were largely “fig leaves’’ raised to cover broader opposition. “I believe many of them believe the federal government shouldn’t even be working in this area,” the senator said.

Wagner replied in a statement, “The House is expected to take up a strong Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act next week so we can protect all victims from acts of violence and help law enforcement prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law. As a mother and protector of all generations, I am committed to protecting all victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking..."

Act provides $3 million to Missouri

McCaskill cited her own background as Jackson County Prosecutor, from 1993-1998, where she said she saw first-hand how much impact that the Violence Against Women Act had made in beefing up efforts to protect women crime victims. The Act was first approved by Congress in 1994.

McCaskill said she has seen how it has helped Kansas City authorities bolster their efforts to protect and defend women victims of crime.

She also took note of her service on the board of a women’s shelter, one of several beneficiaries of funding under the Act.

Overall, she said the Act now provides about $3 million to various law-enforcement and social-service agencies in Missouri.  “We want to make sure these resources don’t go away,” McCaskill said.

Nationally, the Act earmarks about $600 million for law enforcement, shelters and other related agencies that deal with crimes against woman, notablt sexual assault and domestic violence.

McCaskill asserted that House GOP leaders last session “never treated (the Violence Against Women Act) as a priority,” even though the measure had passed the House and Senate overwhelmingly in 2000 and 2005.

In response to questions, McCaskill tied the House opposition to other actions or non-actions in recent years that were deemed as anti-women. “I think that the leadership in the House has not necessarily focused on issues important to women,’’ she said.

McCaskill appeared with St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, who said the Act’s funding was crucial to crime-fighting efforts in the city.

Joyce said she was deeply concerned that some in Congress thought the Violence Against Women Act wasn’t needed.

“I can tell you from first-hand knowledge, the Violence Against Women Act saves lives in the city of St. Louis,” Joyce said. “There is no doubt about it.”

Currently, her office gets about $153,000 from the Act, which is used to partially cover the salaries for three attorneys and an investigator who focus on domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking cases against women.

“The homicides that we really have the best, best chance of preventing are domestic-violence homicides,’’ Joyce said. “We have a terrific team in St. Louis…They interrupt the cycle of violence and they de-escalate it, and they keep it from turning into a homicide. And they save lives.”

McCaskill discusses sequester, Hagel

During a question-answer session, McCaskill also touched on several unrelated topics, including:

-- Sequester: Although she opposes the sequester, which calls for across-the-board spending cuts, McCaskill predicted that the mandate will likely go into effect March 1.  She criticized Republicans for failing to agree to a compromise, and said that the GOP will likely shift its stance only after the effects of the cuts begin to be felt.

-- Cabinet confirmations: McCaskill predicted that the Senate will confirm former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., next week as the new Secretary of Defense, as well as the nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan.

She said that the delays, sought by GOP critics, have hurt the nation's standing among its allies. McCaskill added that both men were qualified for their posts.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.