WASHINGTON — It may be the quintessential story of the 114th Congress: An overwhelmingly bipartisan bill has hit a brick wall in the Senate over an unrelated partisan dispute over abortion.
Senate Republicans quietly added language to an anti-human-trafficking bill that would expand longstanding Hyde Amendment limitations on the use of federal funds for abortion. It would impose abortion restrictions, without a time limit, on how the government can use a new stream of revenues collected from perpetrators of human trafficking as part of a victim’s fund.
Remarkably, Democrats didn’t notice the provision until this week. Filed on January 13 and cosponsored by Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar (MN) and Ron Wyden (OR), the bill unanimously passed the Judiciary Committee on February 26. It is currently being considered by the full Senate.
Accusing Republicans of a sneak attack, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) threatened to tank the bill on Wednesday unless the provision was stripped out.
“Republicans are committed to turning a bipartisan bill into a political fight,” Reid said in a floor speech. “We can give all the speeches out here we want, saying somebody should have read the bill more closely,” Reid said. “A number of people feel it was a little bit of a sleight of hand that shouldn’t be in there. … Take that legislation out of the bill. Otherwise it won’t pass.”
Sen. Patty Murray (WA), the fourth-ranking Democratic leader, said the inclusion of the abortion language was “absolutely wrong, and honestly it is shameful.” Democrats fear that approving the language would set a precedent that could significantly curtail abortion rights in the coming years.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), a sponsor of the bill, dismissed the Democrats’ objections, saying it’s “simply untrue” that senators didn’t know what was in the legislation, as it has been in the public domain for more than a month.
“That presupposes that none of the staff briefed their senators on what was in the legislation — that nobody read a 68-page bill and that senators would vote for a bill, much less cosponsor it without reading it and knowing what’s in it,” Cornyn told reporters on Tuesday. “None of that strikes me as plausible.”
And so the legislation is at an impasse.
The breakdown of trust is just the latest episode in a highly dysfunctional start to the new Congress. It is not the first time Republicans have sought to use bipartisan legislation to expand abortion restrictions as part of a decades-long struggle that has grown more acrimonious in recent years.