Supporters rally in Fargo as deadline nears for passage of Savanna's Act

Amanda Vivier, right, gives out a traditional yell while holding the arm of Tracey Wilkre during a gathering to support the passing of Savanna’s Act outside of Sen.-elect Kevin Cramer's office in south Fargo on Wednesday, Dec. 19. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — Pressure was mounting and time was running out on Wednesday, Dec. 19, to get Savanna's Act passed in the U.S. House after the Senate unanimously approved the bill.

The bill, sponsored by outgoing Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., addresses the epidemic of Native American women and girls who experience violence in their lives. It's named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a pregnant Fargo woman killed last year in a baby-snatching case.

The Senate OK'd the bill Dec. 7 and shipped it to the House. But a roadblock surfaced last week when the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, retiring Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, apparently put a halt to the bill that would need a vote before the session ends for the year on Thursday or Friday, Dec. 20 or 21.

If not approved by the House, it would effectively kill the bill for now.

The bill 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, along with increased cooperation between federal, state, local and tribal law officers and more training for tribal officers. An annual report to Congress would also be required.

Heitkamp, on her end, was "really, really pushing" to get the bill approved, according to her office.

In a statement Wednesday, she said the House had a chance to take action on a "really important issue" and it was so close to getting across the finish line.

"If you talk to almost anyone in Indian Country in North Dakota, almost everyone knows someone who has gone missing or been murdered. It’s horrifying. If that was the case across the entire country, there would be a national call to action to address this issue," she said in the statement.

"But it’s hidden in tribal communities. No more. I will not let that continue to happen.

"Rep. Goodlatte and House Republicans should trust the 100 senators who helped pass my bill two weeks ago in the Senate so it can pass in the House in the next two days and we can get it signed into law. That’s what Native communities deserve.”

When a call was made to Goodlatte's office number, a message said his "mailbox was full." The Forum left a phone message on another line, but it wasn't returned.

Meanwhile, in North Dakota, a letter written by state Rep.-elect Ruth Buffalo of south Fargo was read at the offices of U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who will take over Heitkamp's Senate seat in January.

About 20 people rallied at Cramer's Fargo office on Wednesday. Amanda Vivier of the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation told the crowd that the goal is to pass the bill this year so LaFontaine-Greywind "didn't die in vain." She said Native Americans were "rising up" and demanding protection for women and girls nationwide.

Cramer told The Forum on Monday that he was working to get the bill moving by making calls and contacts this week, including to Goodlatte and Acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker and the Department of Justice.

Cramer also was worried about the time crunch. He said the bill took 14 months to get through the Senate and that the House has only had days to review the bill. "It's all about the clock," he said.

In a Facebook post Wednesday afternoon, Cramer said he had talked with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to see whether the bill could still be passed and what hurdles remained.

Cramer said the reason he wanted to check with Whitaker was to see whether the bill was necessary, adding that it was his "observation there was nothing in there that is prohibited now. Savanna's Act requires things, and a lot of it is common sense." Those things include cooperation between law enforcement agencies, transparency and databases, he said.

Heitkamp responded in a statement by saying, "If you can apparently rely on the attorney general to do what my bill says, then why isn’t he doing it already?"

Heitkamp's office said it had contacted Goodlatte to see what problems he had with the bill, but hadn't heard back as of late Wednesday. If the House makes changes to the bill, it would have to go back to the Senate, which plans to adjourn on Thursday.

Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred represents the Greywind family. She said in a statement Wednesday, "I am appalled and Savanna’s parents are disappointed and upset that Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte is holding up the passage of Savanna’s Act.

"It is an insult to Native American women that a member of Congress would try to block this important bill. A member of Congress who attempts to prevent the bill’s passage is demonstrating that he doesn’t care about the important problem of violence against Native American women. No one should be playing politics with their lives. No one should be demonstrating such callous disregard for the fact that so many Native American women have been beaten, gone missing, and been murdered," Allred said.

"Congressman Goodlatte has the opportunity to provide the key vote which will allow the House of Representatives to vote on this bill. If he does not, his legacy will be that he decided that political gamesmanship was more important than protecting and respecting the lives of vulnerable indigenous women," she concluded.