Inside The Senate GOP’s Self-Made Debacle On Sex Trafficking And Abortion

J. Scott Applewhite

WASHINGTON — It’s common in Congress for the parties to rip each other apart over the contents of a bill. But it’s exceedingly rare for one party to accuse the other of trying to sneak a law into existence without telling them.

An overwhelmingly bipartisan Senate bill to combat human trafficking hit a wall last week after Democrats said they discovered a provision to impose new limits on abortion rights, and threatened to filibuster the bill unless the provision is removed.

Senate Republican leaders now find themselves caught between wanting to show they can pass even the most noncontroversial legislation and the passions of the pro-life base they roped into the battle by making it a high-stakes proxy war over abortion.

The provision expands the restrictions on government funding of abortions beyond those contained in the decades-old Hyde Amendment, Democrats complain. In a statement, the National Right To Life Committee insisted that Republicans keep the abortion language, declaring that “a vote to remove the Hyde provision from S. 178 would be a vote in favor of direct federal funding of abortion on demand” and threatening to include the vote when it calculates its score of how committed individual lawmakers are to the anti-abortion cause.

A procedural Senate vote to advance the bill with the anti-abortion provision is expected to be filibustered by Democrats on Tuesday, leaving an uncertain path forward. The fight over the abortion provision has also entangled the nomination of Loretta Lynch to be attorney general. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is threatening to delay her confirmation until the human trafficking bill is passed.

That the Democrats didn’t notice the provision for nearly two months reflects an extraordinary failure on their own side to read and understand the bill before voting unanimously to approve it in committee and allowing it to come before the full Senate. Republicans didn’t inform them of the provision, Democrats say, arguing that they made a mistake by “trusting” the GOP.

“The language that they now profess to find offensive was in there from the beginning,” McConnell said on CNN.

Six days before the bill was introduced in January, Republican staff on the Judiciary Committee sent a memo to Democratic staff describing seven changes from a version that was offered last year that did not include the abortion provision. Some of the changes were technical; all were unobjectionable. The memo, obtained by TPM, made no mention of the anti-abortion language, which would restrict how revenue collected from perpetrators of human trafficking may be spent. The abortion provision first showed up when the bill was introduced Jan. 13.

Even some House Republicans, long assailed for their own internal dysfunction, are alarmed at their Senate colleagues for imperiling the bipartisan bill. A Republican cosponsor of a companion bill in the House said the Senate should remove the abortion provision.

“There is no reason it should be included in these bills. This issue is far too important to tie it up with an unrelated fight with politics as usual,” Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN) said, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “To me, this is about saving lives.”

That the new Republican-led Senate has descended into such dysfunction within its first 100 days is a harbinger of more drama to come. The White House slammed McConnell in unusually harsh terms on Monday after he threatened to delay a vote on attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch until Democrats allow for passage of the human trafficking bill.

“It’s a reflection of inept leadership,” Earnest told reporters. “I think it’s an indication that [McConnell’s] leadership here in the majority is not off to a very strong start.”

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), who championed the abortion language, said Democrats must have known about the abortion provision and were blocking the bill in a bad-faith effort to make Congress look dysfunctional.

“This was not a surprise,” he said of the provision. “This is a phantom excuse.”

Democrats are comfortable with blocking the bill because they recognize that the party in control tends to get blamed. They learned that lesson over the past six years when the Republican minority used regular filibusters to thwart or slow down Democrats’ agenda, Democratic sources say.

Sure enough, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said the fiasco is “a reflection of a dysfunctional Congress.”

A Democratic Senate leadership aide said, “Hopefully they will agree to remove the language after losing the cloture vote.”

Clarification: This article has been updated to note that Rep. Paulsen is a cosponsor of the House anti-trafficking legislation, and not the main sponsor.

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