WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., is fuming over a U.S. House member's efforts to block Savanna's Act, legislation aimed at addressing the epidemic of Native American women and girls who experience violence in their lives, especially on rural reservations across the nation.
The bill named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a pregnant Fargo woman who was abducted and killed last year in a baby-snatching case, was passed by the U.S. Senate as a unanimous consent bill on Dec. 7.
The bill, introduced by Heitkamp, would improve collection of data on tribal victims, improve tribal access to federal law enforcement databases and create guidelines for responding when someone is reported missing.
But word surfaced Friday, Dec. 14, that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia who is retiring, is blocking the measure.
Heitkamp said Goodlatte is simply playing "petty partisan games."
“If Savanna’s Act doesn’t pass in the next few days, it would have to be reintroduced in the next Congress, and the process would start from square one," Heitkamp said in a statement on Friday. "We are so close to passing this critical bill to help address the crisis of missing and murdered Native American women, and getting it signed into law.
"The actions of one Congressman shouldn’t stop us from improving tribal access to law enforcement databases and preventing the cycle of exploitation, abuse, and violence in Indian Country," she said.
The House also has a consent calendar similar to the Senate where the bill could sail through. But according to Heitkamp's office, a powerful committee chairman can exert influence over the House leadership, still under Republican control for another week, to prevent a vote. That apparently is what chairman Goodlatte has done.
"I’d like to see Congressman Goodlatte actually visit a reservation in North Dakota and explain to the families of victims why he is blocking this bill," Heitkamp said. "Unlike Congressman Goodlatte, I am serious about saving lives and making sure Native American women are invisible no longer - and I’m determined to not let Savanna’s Act go down without a fight."
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.
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.
U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, has also been supportive of the bill. A call to his office wasn't returned Friday afternoon.
Heitkamp said residents should contact Goodlatte's office at 202-225-5431 and that she hoped members of Congress would also put pressure on Goodlatte to stop his actions and pass the bill in the coming days.