Sex Trafficking Impasse Holds Up Senate's Lynch Vote

Sex Trafficking Impasse Holds Up Senate's Lynch Vote
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It was supposed to be an easy, bipartisan chance for the Senate to show it could come together for once and govern. Instead of passing legislation providing relief to victims of sex trafficking, however, the chamber has come to a grinding halt because of disagreements about a provision within the bill dealing with abortion.

The Senate failed Wednesday afternoon to close debate on the measure sponsored by Texas Sen. John Cornyn. The procedural vote was 57-41, three shy of the 60-vote threshold needed to break a Democratic filibuster. A similar vote failed, 55-43, a day earlier. Four Democrats joined Republicans Wednesday in voting for the legislation.

At issue is not the sex trafficking aspect, which provides compensation to victims and has broad bipartisan support. Instead, the two parties are quarreling over language that would prohibit funds in the bill -- financed by penalties paid by criminals -- from being used for abortions, except in the case of rape or if the life of the mother is in danger. The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but that was before Democrats were aware of the abortion provision.

Now, the chamber is at an impasse, with Republicans refusing to remove the abortion amendment, which they say is consistent with current federal law, and Democrats refusing to allow the bill to move forward with the measure attached.

“Really hard to believe what we saw yesterday. Democrats actually filibustering a bill to help victims of modern slavery apparently because left-wing lobbyists told them to,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning. “Yes, their historic mistake is callous and extreme. But more than that, it’s tragic.”

Held back by the debate is not just the fate of this particular piece of legislation, but several other items on the Senate calendar, mainly the nomination of Loretta Lynch as attorney general. Democrats have been complaining for weeks about the long wait Lynch has had between her nomination and getting a vote in the Senate, particularly after she cleared the judiciary committee last month. McConnell said last week that Lynch would receive a vote this week, but later said the vote would not come until after the trafficking bill is resolved.

Democrats, though unwilling to move on the latter, have reacted furiously to McConnell delaying Lynch’s vote.

“Democrats are fully committed to voting for Lynch’s nomination and returning immediately to the trafficking bill,” Minority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “The United States Senate can do two things at the same time.”

The rhetoric has ramped up a notch this week in regards to the confirmation vote. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second ranking Democrat in the chamber, gave an impassioned speech on the floor Wednesday morning in favor of Lynch, calling her nomination a “civil rights milestone.”

“And so Loretta Lynch, the first African-American woman nominated to be attorney general, is asked to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to the Senate calendar,” Durbin said. “That is unfair. It is unjust. It is beneath the decorum and dignity of the United States Senate.”

Republicans questioned Durbin’s racially charged rhetoric. His Illinois counterpart, Sen. Mark Kirk, called it “a little overly emotional,” and Sen. Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican in the chamber, told Politico that Durbin was “factually and patently false.”

The impasse has received plenty of attention from women in the Senate, as the issues of sex trafficking, abortion and the nomination of the second female attorney general ever are of particular importance to women. Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Tammy Baldwin held a press conference Wednesday morning with members of the National Organization for Women, National Women’s Law Center and other groups to call on Republicans to remove the abortion provision and move on. The senators and other speakers spent almost equal time talking about the sex trafficking bill and the stalled nomination.

“Senate Republicans made it clear that instead of working across the aisle to get things done like they said the would last November, instead of working with Democrats on something as bipartisan as combating sex trafficking or making sure our attorney general nominee gets to work, they’d rather double down on partisan, political fights over women’s health,” Murray said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar later took to the Senate floor for nearly two hours, not to filibuster the vote but simply to talk about sex trafficking. She read long passages from the book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” and often implored colleagues to join her.

“I just decided after being somewhat disgusted by all the anger that I’ve heard in this chamber that maybe I would just starting reading from this book,” the Minnesota Democrat said. “When my colleagues want to come down, I welcome it. But I only ask them one thing, that if maybe they could just consider the issue at hand and stop all this vengeance and anger, and then maybe we will have an opportunity, if we stop throwing darts, to get this done.”

Cornyn, the original sponsor of the legislation, said he is seeking some changes that would allow the bill to move forward, including changing the way the funding works to ease Democrats’ concerns. Cornyn admitted, however, that there is no deal yet. He said that there would be another attempt Thursday to close debate on the bill, though Democrats will likely continue their filibuster.

My hope is that overnight, sometime during the next 24 hours, two more of our colleagues -- or more, we’d be glad to have more -- can examine their conscience, can think about why it is they actually ran for the Senate,” and vote for the bill, Cornyn said.

He told reporters later that even if there were a deal, it would be difficult to get it passed by the end of this week. That leaves just next week before Congress departs for a two-week Easter holiday. And next week will be one of the busiest of the year on Capitol Hill as both chambers scramble to pass their budget proposals before the vacation in order to keep the budget timeline intact. Cornyn said he expects the trafficking bill to move forward early next week. That could potentially delay Lynch’s nomination until after the Easter recess.

First though, Cornyn said, they need a deal.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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