Tourists visit the U.S. Capitol in Washington. REUTERS/Mary Calvert

Washington - After months of partisan delay, the US Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act on Thursday, reauthorizing protections from domestic violence and sexual assault for millions of women.

The bill - a reauthorization of legislation first enacted in 1994 but which includes new protections - passed the House of Representatives 286-138, with 87 Republicans joining a united Democratic front in support of the legislation.

The Republican-led House had first sought to greenlight a weakened version of VAWA similar to one they passed last year.

But when that failed on Thursday, they turned around and passed the Senate version, which includes expanded protections for Native Americans, gays and undocumented immigrants.

It now goes to the White House for the signature of President Barack Obama, who applauded the bipartisan passage.

“This law has saved countless lives and transformed the way we treat victims of abuse,” Obama said in a statement, adding that the bill will also provide “critical support for both international and domestic victims of trafficking.”

VAWA funds police training, domestic violence prevention clinics and hotlines, rape prevention programs, shelters for battered women, and help for teens caught in abusive relationships, among other provisions.

A key sticking point for some Republicans had been the bill's introduction of new groups of individuals, a move conservatives said appeared to infringe on the rights of states to determine just where the assistance was to go.

A bill passed by the House last year, months after the Senate's version passed with broad bipartisan approval, stripped out the specific mention of gays, Native Americans and illegal immigrants.

However, the two chambers failed to reconcile their bills, and Republicans stood accused of essentially letting the clock run out on the protections which VAWA supporters say have helped millions of women across the country.

That triggered a backlash from Democrats like Senator Patty Murray, who said last month that “the House Republicans' decision to pointedly discriminate against these groups of women was stunning,” and showed how the leadership was pressured by the far right wing of the party into allowing the bill to expire.

According to the White House, domestic violence has dropped by 64 percent since VAWA first came into effect 18 years ago. - Sapa-AFP