By Maria Recio and William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans and Democrats will face off Tuesday over the former’s demand to accept a bill with a controversial abortion provision or Republicans will postpone the already much-delayed vote to confirm attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who made the threat Sunday, has scheduled a procedural vote that could force the bill to be put aside if all Democrats stand firm. The legislation that includes the abortion language is a bipartisan effort to combat human trafficking. If the impasse continues, as seems likely, Republicans would retaliate by further delaying a vote on Lynch.
The GOP move incensed White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Monday, who called it a “reflection of inept leadership,” saying that Republicans had included an unwanted provision in an otherwise widely supported bill.
“The fact that Leader McConnell can’t build bipartisan support for a child sex-trafficking bill I think is an indication that his leadership here in the majority is not off to a very strong start,” Earnest said.
He called Lynch’s delay “unconscionable” and said not “a single legitimate question” had been raised about her qualifications for the job. Lynch is the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
But Republicans can claim the high ground in that the bill, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, was publicly posted in January and debated and voted on by the Senate Judiciary Committee in February. They argue that it’s not their fault if Democrats did not read it.
“Do our colleagues who are filibustering this legislation really want to play politics with such a sensitive and vulnerable part of our population over an issue that some advocates have called a phantom problem?” Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) said Monday on the Senate floor.
Cornyn, the bill’s author, implored six Democrats to break party ranks and join Republicans, which would give them the 60 votes needed to proceed to a vote on the bill.
Tying the trafficking bill to a vote on Lynch only seemed to harden Democrats.
“But if hijacking the human trafficking bill with an unrelated abortion provision wasn’t already bad enough, the majority leader is now holding Loretta Lynch’s nomination hostage, too,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).
He complained that Lynch was nominated 128 days ago, one of the longest delays for a confirmation vote in recent Senate history.
How did the provision prohibiting taxpayer money to fund abortions end up in a bill designed to fight modern-day slavery?
It is all intertwined with the politics of the Hyde Amendment, named for the late Rep. Henry Hyde, a Republican from Illinois and an opponent of abortion. The 1976 provision prohibits federal funding from being used for abortions.
Last year the Democrats controlled the Senate and Cornyn did not include the anti-abortion language when the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill.
The 113th Congress ended without a floor vote on the bill, and the new Congress — with Republicans in charge of both chambers — began in January with a clean slate, meaning all legislation had to be introduced again.
This time, Cornyn’s bill contained the Hyde Amendment language on abortion funding. The bill was posted and even approved unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Democrats didn’t see the provision and Republicans didn’t advertise it.
A Cornyn aide, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the controversy, said the new language was inserted last year. The aide said that Democratic staff was aware of the addition before the Judiciary Committee established the bill’s final wording in February.
But a Senate Republican Policy Committee summary of the bill does not mention the Hyde Amendment provision. A companion bill passed by the House of Representatives does not include the Hyde language.
Still, Democrats apparently failed to read the bill until the last minute, setting up the impasse.
Aside from saying they were blindsided, Democrats say the bill expands the provision, since it goes beyond the taxpayer funding specified in the Hyde Amendment and applies it to funds that the bill would collect to help victims from traffickers.
Cornyn countered Monday with a release listing dozens of bills that include similarly restrictive abortion language. “Why do Democrats now oppose Hyde language while scared, abused children await our help?” he asked.
But Democrats and their supporters are holding firm — especially with Lynch in the balance.
“It adds insult to injury to hold up the vote to confirm Lynch until that bill passes,” said Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, a nonpartisan advocacy group.
Lesley Clark contributed to this report.
Photo: U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) in the Capitol Rotunda on the way to the State of the Union Address, Jan. 20, 2015. (James Cullum/Talk Radio News Service via Flickr)