WASHINGTON — For all the attention on the Republican Party’s efforts to attract Latinos, the first test for the party on 2012’s lessons learned will arrive this week for a voting bloc that has drifted out of its grasp: women.
Senator Susan Collins at the Capitol in Washington on Monday. “This is not and never should be a partisan political issue,” she said of the anti-violence measure.
Restarting a politically tinged debate, the Senate voted 85 to 8 on Monday evening to take up a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act. The measure foundered last year on Republican concern over obscure issues like the bill’s inclusion of additional visas for abused illegal immigrants, its treatment of same-sex couples and its strengthening of American Indian courts. Final Senate passage is expected by the end of the week — with broad, bipartisan support.
That will leave House Republicans a stark choice: stand against the provisions that derailed the bill last year or adjust, given November’s electoral blowout with women. Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, practically pleaded with her party on Monday to move forward.
“This is not and never should be a partisan political issue,” she said on the Senate floor. “This is an equal-opportunity crime that harms people regardless of their political affiliation, their profession or their status in life. It’s an issue that deserves bipartisan support.”
House Republican leaders are struggling for a way forward. On Tuesday, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, will meet with Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, to try to compromise on the biggest sticking point, a provision that would allow American Indian women assaulted on reservations by non-Indians to go to tribal courts, which have no jurisdiction over assailants who do not live on Indian land.
Many Republicans see that as a dangerous and unconstitutional expansion of tribal court power, while victims’ advocates say women on reservations have virtually no recourse when raped by non-Indian interlopers.
“On reservations and tribal lands, it’s open season on women,” said Kim A. Gandy, the president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, an advocacy group pressing for passage of an expanded domestic violence law.
But both sides concede the politics of the bill are clear.
“Socially moderate, fiscally conservative women, we do everything we can to drag them away from our party by fighting over things we shouldn’t,” said Steven C. LaTourette, a moderate Ohio Republican who retired from the House last year. “The public only sees the headline, and the headline says, ‘Republicans clocking a bill called violence against women.’ ”
In 2000, a year when the total vote for House candidates split 50-50 between the two parties, 54 percent of women voted for Democratic candidates. Two years later, that gender gap had evaporated.
But in November last year, it had reopened wide. In a year when Republicans maintained control of the House, exit polls showed that 56 percent of women voted against their candidates, an even higher total than the 55 percent that voted for President Obama.
“I do not believe Republicans can change their stripe on this,” said Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “They just can’t.”
House Republican leadership aides said they were in serious negotiations with Senate Democrats, White House officials and tribal leaders on a way forward. Senate Democrats have already made the path clearer by dropping one contentious provision, which would have expanded the number of available visas for illegal immigrants who were victims of domestic violence. That provision, because of its slight cost and a modest fee, ran afoul of the constitutional mandate that tax measures originate in the House.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would instead include the measure in a comprehensive immigration bill his committee planned to take up soon.
Rather than introducing an anti-violence bill that would pass largely along party lines, as House Republicans did last year, House Republican leaders will move forward only after a compromise is reached, aides said.
“Our focus is on passing a bill that protects women and prosecutes offenders — that’s always been our goal,” said Doug Heye, a spokesman for Mr. Cantor. “We have made clear that Dems last year were more interested in using this as a political issue against Republicans than finding a solution to the issues.”
But the politics within the Republican Party are anything but resolved. Some Republicans still oppose using money set aside for domestic violence cases to aid victims in same-sex relationships. Last week, the conservative Independent Women’s Forum said the Violence Against Women Act, passed first in 1994, was a waste of money that could actually be intensifying domestic violence.
“Although there is little credible evidence that V.A.W.A. programs are reducing the effects and occurrence of domestic and sexual violence, there is evidence that several of the policies instituted under V.A.W.A. may actually be harming the very victims they were designed to protect,” wrote Christina Villegas, a visiting fellow at the group.
Fresh off their political victories, Democrats, if anything, may be less willing to compromise further. With a record number of women in the Senate and 60 co-sponsors of their version, including seven Republicans, Democrats are practically daring Republicans to stand in the way again.
“We’re going to have these votes,” Mr. Leahy said. “The proof will be in the pudding.”
“There’s no question that both parties have noticed the extremely important role that women voters played in the last election,” Ms. Gandy said. “You ignore women voters at your own peril.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 4, 2013
An earlier version of a headline accompanying this article was incorrect. The Senate did not vote on the Violence Against Women Act; it voted on whether to restart discussion of the measure.