WASHINGTON — As Congress adjourned Friday night, Dec. 21, there was no word if Savanna's Act, an effort to fight the epidemic of violence against women and girls on America's Indian reservations, had passed the U.S. House.
The bill named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old pregnant Fargo woman murdered last year in a baby-snatching case, was hanging in the balance in the final days of a chaotic week in Congress. The Senate had approved the legislation by unanimous consent earlier in the month.
However, as of late Friday night, Rep. Kevin Cramer's office gave no indication if the bill had moved along in the House, where it was being held up by the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. There was some time Friday where the House had the opportunity to look into some other legislation as they waited on the fate of a bill for funds that would keep the government open past midnight.
Lawmakers, though, went home for the night late Friday, but could possibly return on Saturday.
The last word in the struggle over the bill was from U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's office late Wednesday when Goodlatte sent over changes he wanted in the bill.
The bill would improve tribal access to federal databases for tracking missing tribal persons, require the Department of Justice to consult with tribes while developing guidelines, mandate reporting statistics regarding missing and murdered Native Americans to Congress, and streamline coordination between tribes and law enforcement agencies with training and technical assistance in putting the guidelines in force.
Goodlatte said he essentially wanted to strike out the law enforcement guidelines. One provision he wanted removed would essentially strike out any accountability for law enforcement to implement guidelines in the bill. Another would take out the provision for preference for law enforcement grant applicants that have implemented the guidelines.
These were incentives for law enforcement on the federal, state, local and tribal level to put an extra effort into addressing the crisis, said Heiktamp's office.
Without those provisions, her office said a key part of the bill would be gutted and was a nonstarter in any negotiations.
According to Heitkamp, 84 percent of Native American women experience violence in their lifetime, but she said few outside of Indian Country are aware of this epidemic. Native American women face a murder rate 10 times higher than the national average.
North Dakota had 125 cases of Native American women and girls reported missing to the National Crime Information Center in 2016, the last year data was available. However, the actual figure likely should be higher as some cases may not even be reported.
Cramer, who will take over Heitkamp's Senate seat in January, said he was working on the bill this week, making phone calls to Goodlatte and the acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker and talking to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy about the "hurdles" that needed to be overcome to get a House vote. Rallies were held around the state at Cramer offices this week to try to get the bill passed and a phone-calling and email effort was also undertaken to Cramer and Goodlatte offices.
If the bill isn't approved this year, new legislation would need to be introduced and go through what could be a long legislative process again next year. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who heads the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said he would keep working on the bill and has strongly supported efforts to get it passed.