WASHINGTON — Senate leaders announced a deal Tuesday to move forward on a stalled human trafficking bill, clearing the way for a vote on President Barack Obama’s attorney general nominee within days.
The deal unveiled on the Senate floor aimed to solve a dispute over abortion that had stalled the once-popular trafficking bill for weeks. Attorney General-designate Loretta Lynch was caught in the crossfire, infuriating Democrats, because Republican leaders decided to hold off on her confirmation vote until the trafficking bill was resolved.
“I’m glad we can say there is a bipartisan proposal that will allow us to complete action on this important legislation so we can provide help to the victims who desperately need it,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He said he anticipated a vote on Lynch, who will become the nation’s first black female attorney general, “in the next day or so.”
“Let’s get out of this quickly,” said Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “Let’s get Loretta Lynch confirmed.”
Lynch was nominated last fall and Democrats have become increasingly agitated about the delays in confirming her to replace Eric Holder, even though they controlled the Senate for part of that time and failed to call her nomination up for a vote. Obama on Friday called the delays “embarrassing.”
The trafficking deal aims to address Democratic concerns that the legislation would expand existing prohibitions on spending federal funds for abortions. The legislation envisions a new victims fund made up of fees paid by sex criminals, and Democrats asserted that applying abortion spending prohibitions to that new source of non-taxpayer funds was an expansion they could not accept.
Republicans had to be satisfied that abortion spending prohibitions were not curtailed.
The final language, negotiated by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas and Patty Murray, D-Wash., solves the problem by establishing two sources of money for the new victims’ fund. Money collected from the fines assessed on criminal perpetrators would be used for services such as legal aid, but not health or medical services, and therefore language on abortion would not be relevant. Money already appropriated by Congress for Community Health Centers — and already subject to abortion spending restrictions — would be available for health and medical services.
The trafficking bill, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously, had appeared headed for quick passage through the Senate earlier this year until Democrats suddenly started raising alarms about the abortion language. They claimed Republicans had sneaked it into the bill, although at least one Democratic senator’s office acknowledged that an aide had known of it. Outside interest groups, including Planned Parenthood, got involved and the bill stalled amid partisan gridlock.
Tuesday’s deal allowed all sides to claim victory: Republicans for ensuring money for medical procedures are subject to the existing abortion restriction, known as the “Hyde amendment,” and Democrats for establishing that the Hyde restriction isn’t expanded to a new source of money.
Planned Parenthood applauded the deal. “Thankfully, Senators Reid and Murray and other women’s health champions held the line and today’s agreement prevents Hyde from being extended even further into other funding streams, and provides survivors of human trafficking with immediate access to needed health care services,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
ERICA WERNER, Associated Press