WASHINGTON — It should have been easy. A Senate bill aimed at combating human trafficking with sponsors from both parties, including Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Minnesota’s own Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, passed out of committee unanimously and looked set for easy passage in the full Senate this week. After all, who isn’t against sex trafficking?
But nothing is easy in this Congress, and the all-but-assured passage of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act is now in jeopardy after Democrats noticed language inserted by Republicans in the legislation that would ban the use of funds and fees collected by the bill for abortion.
And so, in the theater of the absurd that increasingly characterizes Congress, Democrats spent the week promising to block an anti-human trafficking bill co-sponsored by many of their own, including Klobuchar, while members of both parties gave dueling floor speeches and accusatory press conferences blaming each other for politicizing and potentially sinking the sex trafficking work.
The legislation in question would take fines and assets from convicted human traffickers and establish a fund for victim rehabilitation. The abortion language, a version of the “Hyde Amendment,” a 40-year-old prohibition on taxpayer funding for abortions, bans the use of money collected under this legislation for abortion.
Democrats say this amendment would apply the abortion ban not just to taxpayer dollars but fees paid by prosecuted criminals, and it would essentially take effect permanently for those funds. When it’s attached to budget bills, Congress has to pass the Hyde Amendment on an annual basis.
Republicans say the bill just maintains a status quo that Congress reaffirms every year: no taxpayer funding for abortions. But abortion rights are about as sensitive and divisive a subject there is, and Democrats argue it shouldn’t be connected to something as bipartisan as anti-human trafficking legislation.
Last year’s version of the bill did not include the language, nor was it anywhere in a slate of human trafficking bills the House passed last month.
The Senate’s human trafficking bill applies the amendment through dense legalese, but it’s been in this bill since it was introduced in January, giving Democrats, especially those with legislative expertise, plenty of time to spot it. But Klobuchar and other Democrats say they didn’t know about it until earlier this week. They acknowledged, per Politico, that they simply missed it until now. They say Republicans could have done more to warn them it was there, but Cornyn said at a press conference that “there were discussions on the staff level” about its inclusion.
Publicly, Klobuchar has mostly let leadership and Cornyn, her ally here, fight over the abortion language, alluding to it only in passing during a Wednesday floor speech. In a statement to MinnPost, she said, “my colleagues and I are continuing to work through issues, including the Hyde provision, which needs to be fixed. My focus is on finding a path forward so that we can get this done.”
This isn’t the way it was supposed to happen. Bills combating sex trafficking should be easy, bipartisan victories for a Congress that will see very few of those this session.
The House, usually marred by its own political dysfunction, passed its sex trafficking bills without opposition earlier this year. Last month in the Senate, the Judiciary Committee unanimously signed off on this bill, with the Hyde Amendment apparently hiding inside. Klobuchar and Cornyn penned an op-ed calling on Congress to pass the legislation, and as late as Monday morning, before the abortion language came to light, Democratic leader Harry Reid was calling on the Senate to support the bill. Now he says Democrats will block it until the language is taken out.
At Republicans’ Thursday press conference, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said he foresaw Congress passing the bill and President Obama hosting “a signing ceremony that will look unlike most signing ceremonies, in that there will be a bipartisan group there, and hopefully there will be kids up front, and it will be about how even in this terribly partisan environment we have in Washington, D.C., we can make progress on important issues.”
That would have been the case with maybe any other version of this bill, but it’s not looking likely now. Both sides are entrenched and the atmosphere is poisoned. Reid has accused Republicans of “hijacking” the anti-trafficking bill. Cornyn said Democrats “should be ashamed of themselves” if they block it over abortion.
The Senate is out for the weekend, and unless something changes, it will return to a stalemate on human trafficking. On the floor Thursday, McConnell said the Senate will “stay on this bill until we pass it,” but Reid said Democrats will block it until it’s changed.
“The bill dealing with human trafficking is going to pass this Congress,” he said. “But it’s going to pass this Congress without the abortion language in it.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry