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Retiring House Republican is holding up bill aimed at protecting Native American women

Legislation aimed at addressing the number of indigenous women who go missing or are murdered passed the Senate unanimously.
Image: Heidi Heitkamp
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., is interviewed at Amvets Club in Bismarck, North Dakota on Aug. 17, 2018.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

WASHINGTON — Time is running out for two lawmakers locked in a battle over legislation aimed at protecting Native American women.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota who lost her re-election bid last month, had hoped her parting gift before leaving the Senate would be a bill addressing the number of indigenous women who go missing or are murdered.

But the legislation, known as Savanna's Act, has stalled in the House after passing the Senate unanimously last week. The top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who is retiring at the end of the year, has refused to usher the legislation through his committee.

Republican leadership in the House could bypass the committee but has yet to commit to doing so. And with just a couple days left in the session this year, the bill's chances are looking grim.

A House leadership aide said the House Judiciary Committee is "looking at the language of the bill."

Goodlatte's office did not return requests for comment from NBC News regarding what opposition he might

"He should trust 100 senators who said this was a problem that needed to be addressed," Heitkamp said. "Right now, one congressman is holding this up, and one congressman who is not even going to be here next year."

Heitkamp authored Savanna's Act after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old pregnant woman, was killed by a woman who plotted to kidnap her baby.

It costs no additional federal money, but attempts to improve the federal government’s response to missing and murdered women by easing barriers among federal, local, state and tribal law enforcement.

In a news release celebrating the bill's passage in the Senate, Heitkamp noted that on some reservations, Native women are victims of violence at a rate up to 10 times the national average.

"It's an issue where there's been a complete lack of national awareness and attention," Heitkamp said. "When we came back here into the lame duck session, being a lame duck senator, this was, along with the Farm Bill, my highest priority and I'm not going to give up on this until the gavel goes down on this session."

It's the next iteration of a bill Heitkamp passed last year with the late Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona that expands the Amber Alert to tribal communities.

Heitkamp, who represents approximately 30,000 tribal residents in North Dakota and lost to Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer in November, has been drawing attention to the alarming high rates of women murdered or taken on tribal lands, starting the hashtag #notinvisible. She has used Twitter to draw attention to Savanna's Act.

Goodlatte has a history of blocking legislation. One House Republican aide wasn’t surprised by Goodlatte’s actions, telling NBC News that “obstruction” is his middle name.

If the House adjourns for the year without passing it, the bill process has to start over next year.