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McConnell touts legislation to tackle rape kit backlog, dodges questions on funding held up in Senate

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Sen. McConnell at the state police lab in Louisville | Photos by Joe Sonka

Sen. Mitch McConnell spoke today in Louisville at the Kentucky State Police Lab with Debbie Smith, urging the reauthorization of legislation bearing her name that devotes federal funds to tackle the nation’s massive rape kit backlog.

The Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Reduction Act, first passed in 2004, has little to no opposition in Congress. But as is the case with the current dysfunction of Washington, this bill and other uncontroversial legislation aimed at reducing the nation’s backlog of 100,000 rape kits is currently being held up in partisan gridlock.

In April, the House reauthorized the Debbie Smith Act by a voice vote, which is set to expire at the end of September. In the Senate, this legislation was attached to the bipartisan Justice for All Reauthorization Act, which includes other grants to go toward forensic tests to solve crimes, prosecute criminals and potentially exonerate the innocent. While the Justice for All Act has wide bipartisan support — McConnell himself is a cosponsor — several Senate Republicans have placed a hold on the bill, blocking its passage.

McConnell argued today that the Debbie Smith Act should be separated and passed by the Senate on its own, leaving the rest of the Justice for All legislation to be hashed out at a later time. Smith concurred with McConnell’s assessment — though she also supports the Justice for All Act — saying the senator has been a champion for her legislation and has worked in good faith with Democrats.

But when asked about the reasons why the Justice for All Act and an appropriations bill devoting an additional $41 million to tackle the rape kit backlog are facing a brick wall in the Senate, McConnell deflected and dodged.

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Inside the Kentucky State Police Lab

The appropriations bill devoting these funds passed the House this year but has been blocked for a vote in the Senate, as Republicans have attempted to attach non-germane amendments to the legislation before they will allow a vote. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., wants an amendment to restrict congressional staffers from using subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, and McConnell himself has stalled the bill with an amendment to roll back new EPA rules on emissions from power plants.

When asked by The Courier-Journal’s Joe Gerth if he would pull his amendment in order for the rape kit backlog funds to proceed, McConnell first said he didn’t know what he was talking about. After Gerth followed up with the same question, McConnell stiff-armed by replying, “We’re here today to talk about the Debbie Smith Act, and I’d be happy to respond to any questions about that subject.” After another reporter followed up by asking if the $41 million to reduce the rape kit backlog is important as well, McConnell answered, “It might be. But that’s a separate bill. And we’re here today to talk about the Debbie Smith Act and the importance of getting that passed.”

When Insider Louisville asked McConnell why the Senate is unable to vote on or pass the Justice for All reauthorization, he stretched his own credibility by blaming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has tried to call for a vote on the legislation for months, only to be blocked by Senate Republicans.

“Well, unfortunately I’m not setting the agenda,” said McConnell. “The majority leader sets the agenda. And maybe I’ll have that opportunity next year.”

McConnell followed by switching some blame to the House, assumedly Republican members who are opposed to the Justice for All reauthorization.

“I think the dilemma is, there are some members of the (Senate) majority who want to add something to this bill that is unacceptable to the House,” said McConnell. “That’s the dilemma. So what we’re saying is, send the Debbie Smith Bill on down to the president, get a signature. The other bill (JFARA) — that I also support, I’m not opposed to it – the House is opposed to it.”

House Republicans also had blocked the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2012 and 2013, though House Speaker John Boehner eventually overruled the majority in his caucus to allow the legislation — devoting hundreds of millions of dollars annually to protecting victims of sexual assault and domestic violence — to pass. Though the legislation easily passed the Senate last year — supported by all female Republican senators — McConnell voted against VAWA for the second straight year. You may have seen a few ads from Alison Lundergan Grimes pointing that out lately.

Kentucky State Police Lab System Director Laura Sudkamp told Insider Louisville that Kentucky currently has a backlog of about 500 rape kits, made more difficult by the recent departure of six staff members at the lab. If Congress can’t get its act together soon, this backlog will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

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