Updated 6:12 p.m. | Abortion politics — and an emerging trust gap between Democrats and Republicans — threatened to derail the ostensibly noncontroversial human trafficking bill on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Democrats said they were effectively hoodwinked by Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and other Republican senators with the inclusion of an expansion of the scope of the prohibition of federal funding on abortion known as the Hyde amendment.
A Cornyn aide alleged that the staff of Judiciary ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., was aware of the abortion language before the bill even came up for a vote in committee, but Democratic aides said that simply was not true.
"We're on the bill. And these provisions, my caucus did not know about them. You can blame it on staff, blame it on whoever you want to blame it on, but we didn't know it was in the bill," Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday. "The bill will not come off this floor as long as that language is in the bill."
Reid and his fellow Democrats did not force the GOP to jump through procedural hoops to get the bill up for debate on the floor, where it is now open for amendment. Speaking on the floor, Cornyn pointed to previous instances where the Hyde amendment has been applied outside of the appropriations process, including during the health care overhaul debate.
"All the Democrats, every single Democrat, voted to support Obamacare, which contained the same restriction on taxpayer funding for abortions," Cornyn said. "In other words, our Democratic friends have voted time, and time, and time, and time again for the exact same language they now say they're going to filibuster on the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. Language they said they weren't aware of when they voted for it. They didn't read. Their staff didn't tell them about it."
Cornyn earlier told reporters he did not think it was possible Democrats didn't know about the anti-abortion provision, which represents a change from current law in applying the Hyde amendment to something other than an appropriations bill.
"The legislation that the Senate unanimously agreed to go on yesterday was filed on Jan. 13 with Democratic co-sponsors," Cornyn said. "It was out in the public domain for a month before it was marked up in Judiciary Committee on Feb. 26, and all members of the Judiciary Committee voted to support it."
"That leads me to believe that ... some of the suggestions being made now that there were provisions in the legislation that people didn't know about are simply untrue. That presupposes that none of their 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 co-sponsor it without reading it, and knowing what's in it," Cornyn said. "None of that strikes me as plausible."
The language itself should have been easy enough to see for a staffer or senator who is familiar with the reading of legislation. It applies the Hyde language directly from a recent spending bill, although it is incorporated by reference.
But Democrats who insist they were unaware say that shouldn't have been necessary, because they received a list of changes from the base bill introduced last Congress. Sen. Charles E. Schumer said there was a list of changes from last year's version of the legislation, and the anti-abortion piece "was not listed among them."
"There was a representation made that the provision, the controversial provision, was not included in this bill. It turns out that it was. I don't know how that happened or who was the author of it, but the fact is the bill that is on the floor today has a provision in it which we were told would not be included," Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said.
Schumer and Durbin sit on the Judiciary Committee, which had reported the measure out without any dissenting votes. Ranking member Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont said the move, which Democrats viewed as a bait-and-switch, could have ramifications beyond the current anti-trafficking legislation.
"Senate Republicans need to decide whether they want to be a majority party that works across the aisle to advance legislation, or if they want to use debates about some of the most vulnerable among us to advance their own political agenda. The children should be our priority, not scoring political points," Leahy said in a statement. "If Republicans are serious about combating trafficking, they should put money behind efforts to protect runaway and homeless youth — not efforts to restrict health care for women."
The Democratic campaign apparatus, as well as those supporting of abortion rights like Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards, were critical of the language.
"The Senate should protect victims of human trafficking but should not do so at the expense of women's access to safe and legal abortion. The majority of human trafficking victims are women and girls, and they need access to the full range of reproductive health care services without barriers," Richards said in a statement.
"The Senate should protect victims of human trafficking but should not do so at the expense of women's access to safe and legal abortion. The majority of human trafficking victims are women and girls, and they need access to the full range of reproductive health care services without barriers."
"This is one subject where Washington can come together on a bipartisan basis, and do some real good on behalf of some of the most vulnerable victims of some of the most heinous conduct that most of us can imagine," Cornyn said, touting the bipartisan support the legislation has enjoyed.
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