WASHINGTON – The Senate, with broad bipartisan support, voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to expand the reach of 1994's landmark Violence Against Women Act by fortifying the power of Native American courts and explicitly protecting gay victims of abuse.
The 78-to-22 vote raised the pressure on the House to act and expanded by 10 votes the margin of approval that a nearly identical bill garnered in the Senate last April. Twenty-three Republicans backed the measure, up from 15 previously. The vote came after 17 House Republicans on Monday wrote Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, demanding immediate action on an antidomestic violence bill that can get bipartisan support, unlike the House bill that passed largely on party lines last year.
The new version "must reach all victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking in every community in the country," the letter stated, echoing the language used by supporters of the Senate bill, which expands the law's focus to include homosexual and Native American victims and assailants.
The law, reauthorized twice before with almost no controversy, has been stuck this time in the broader fight over the size and scope of government, and a more specific battle over the powers Congress should afford tribal courts, which now cannot pursue non-Indians who attack Native women on tribal land. Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Independent Women's Forum have blasted the law as an ineffective waste of money and the new version as a dangerous expansion of governmental powers.
"I never thought the day would come when this issue would become politicized, but I'm afraid it has," said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, as he led the conservative opposition to the Senate bill.
But the 2012 election results – and the yawning gender gap that kept the White House in President Obama's hands, expanded Democratic control of the Senate and chipped away at the Republicans' House majority – may have changed the political dynamics on the antiviolence bill.
"Quite honestly, we can't afford to be sitting on this for months or another year," said Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska and a supporter of the Senate bill.
After the vote, President Obama called on the House to act.
"The bill passed by the Senate will help reduce homicides that occur from domestic violence, improve the criminal justice response to rape and sexual assault, address the high rates of dating violence experienced by young women, and provide justice to the most vulnerable among us," the president said in a statement. "It's now time for the House to follow suit and send this bill to my desk so that I can sign it into law."
House Republican leaders find themselves squeezed between moderate – and many conservative – Republicans who want the Violence Against Women Act out of the way and senior Republicans who remain adamantly opposed. Aides to Mr. Cantor have been meeting with both sides for weeks, and say they will not move legislation to the House floor until both sides of the debate sign off on a bill that will have broad support.
The biggest sticking point is the expansion of tribal court authority, which many Republicans see as an unconstitutional power grab by the tribes that will deprive non-Native Americans of their fundamental constitutional rights. Social conservatives object to a provision in the Senate bill that clarifies that victims rights and prosecution programs created by the law can be used in cases of domestic abuse involving same-sex couples.
But as senior Republican leaders like Mr. Cantor urge their party to project a more can-do image on issues beyond budget cuts and taxes, moderate Republicans say a bill like the Violence Against Women Act is a crucial test.
"At a time like this, we have to show we can get something done," said Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, one of the signers of the House letter. And, he added, legislation like the Violence Against Women Act "should not be a heavy lift."
Correction: February 12, 2013, Tuesday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this story included a statement from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. that was attributed to the president. The current quotation is a statement from the president.nation
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.