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McCollum champions bill to quell domestic violence

The Florida Republican dismisses suggestions that the move is in preparation for his bid for the U.S. Senate.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 3, 2000

WASHINGTON -- A person entering in the middle of a recent House Judiciary Committee meeting would have been excused for thinking the panel was back to debating the impeachment of President Clinton.

"Who defines romantic?" Chairman Henry Hyde asked.

"I don't know," answered Rep. Bill McCollum.

But the matter at hand was not the president's sex life. It was the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which is up for reauthorization in Congress this year.

McCollum, the Judiciary crime subcommittee chairman and GOP Senate candidate, is responsible for guiding this feminist priority through the House. And he has been an enthusiastic supporter of the victim hotlines, shelters and law enforcement programs the bill would finance.

For a former House impeachment manager who once stood before the Senate describing the president's fondling of Monica Lewinsky's breasts, there could be no more felicitous job. Politically, the legislation is an antidote to Democratic charges that the House managers were nothing but sex police and that McCollum, in particular, is too right-wing to be a U.S. senator -- a job he is seeking against moderate Democratic state Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson.

Thus it may seem puzzling that McCollum would want to debate the definition of romance on a bill that seeks to help women who are beaten by men who claim to love them. But the reason, it seems, is that the new, more moderate McCollum must protect his right flank.

Conservatives, it turns out, objected to an early draft of the bill that equated "dating" and homosexual relationships with traditional heterosexual marriage.

"I think we need to maintain the distinction in the law when it comes to marital versus just dating relationships," said Lori Cole, executive director of Eagle Forum, a conservative women's lobbying group. "And we wouldn't want to expand it to other areas, such as homosexual relationships."

The Violence Against Women Act was passed by a Democratic Congress in 1994. It authorizes more than $270-million a year in federal funds for various programs, such as improving arrest policies so that domestic violence cases do not fall through the cracks of the criminal justice system. The act also finances programs to help women in rural areas, on Indian reservations and on college campuses. It coordinates the efforts of courts, police and victims' advocates in prosecuting and preventing gender-based abuse.

A new version of the popular bill is expected to sail through Congress this year and quickly be signed into law by Clinton.

McCollum's contributions to the new version have been substantial, victims advocates say. He has added housing assistance grants for women who are homeless because they have fled domestic violence and included a pilot program to set up safe, neutral meeting places for those accused of battering to legally visit children without seeing their accusers.

"Rep. McCollum has done an excellent job in strengthing this bill," said Lynn Rosenthal, executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "We're very pleased. It's a very strong bill, and it reflects the priorities of the domestic violence advocacy groups."

Yet Democrats on the panel are angry that McCollum deleted wording that included dating violence under the definition of domestic violence. By not doing so, Democrats say, McCollum is writing the law in such a way as to prevent a host of programs from using federal funds to help victims battered by boyfriends, as opposed to husbands.

"This leaves a gaping hole in (the bill's) ability to address dating violence," Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., charged. "The entire advocacy community and the Department of Justice has asked Mr. McCollum to remedy this defect. And their calls have fallen apparently on deaf ears."

But McCollum stuck to his guns.

"I don't think that's what domesticity means in this country today," he said in a June 21 session. "It isn't about dating. Domestic means marital relationships."

Rep. Steven Rothman, a New Jersey Democrat, said he wasn't concerned with legal definitions as long as the law is clear that women who are battered by their boyfriends get the same help as abused wives.

"I do understand the gentleman from Florida's point about the propriety or . . . semantical or philosophical question as to whether dating violence should fall under the category of domestic violence. For my own purposes, I don't care. I just want those programs funded," Rothman said.

McCollum offered a legal definition of dating: It is a "social relationship of a romantic or intimate nature" whose legitimacy depends on how long the couple have known each other and their "frequency of interaction."

Judiciary Chairman Hyde offered a hypothetical: Two gay men get in a fight and one breaks the other's jaw. Down the road, two strangers get into a fender bender, one guy gets out of his car and breaks the other's jaw.

"Somehow the romantic aspect (of the first incident) makes it a worse crime than when you get your jaw broken at an intersection, is that what this means? Somebody answer me," Hyde demanded. "And who defines romantic? . . . I mean, an assault is an assault."

Such distinctions are part of the political process, especially in an election year when both the presidency and House of Representatives are considered up for grabs, observers say.

"That's going to happen when you have people who have to keep their finger in the political wind as well as try to accomplish something. I don't blame politicians. That's part of their job," said Anita Blair, executive director of the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative policy group.

But as presumptive Democratic Senate nominee Nelson works up his speeches for the campaign, he will surely scour McCollum's record in Congress for things to hold against him.

Justice Department figures show that young women ages 16 to 24 -- those most likely to be dating, not married -- are also most likely to be battered by their intimates. Judiciary Democrats have criticized McCollum, saying he short-changed these women by writing the law in such a way as to choke off funds for groups that would help them.

McCollum, though, is not worried. He cites the strong support for his work from domestic violence advocacy groups and suggests that Democratic criticisms are primarily motivated by election-year politics.

"There are a certain amount of politics involved in this. I'm a candidate for the Senate," McCollum said. "Some don't want me to be identified with this bill in a positive way."

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