Senate Passes Trafficking Bill

.jpg photo of Loretta Lynch
Senate passes trafficking bill 99 – 0

The unanimous 99-0 vote belied much of the drama behind the legislation.

The Senate passed a bill aimed at combating human trafficking on Wednesday afternoon, putting to rest six weeks of gridlock over abortion politics and clearing the way for Loretta Lynch to be confirmed as the next attorney general.

The unanimous 99-0 vote belied much of the drama behind the legislation, which jammed up the Senate floor amid partisan bickering over whether the bill’s restitution fund for victims should be subject to abortion restrictions. The row over social issues also obscured strong support for the measure’s core provisions aimed at combating sex slavery.

“Help is finally on the way for the thousands of enslaved victims who suffer unspeakable abuse in the shadows,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday. “We’re relieved we can finally say it will pass today.”

When the bill hit the Senate floor, Democrats raised objections after failing to notice the abortion restrictions in committee. Things got heated when McConnell tied passage of the bill to Loretta Lynch’s confirmation vote and Democrats lambasted Republicans for holding up the president’s pick to head the Justice Department.

But after several rounds of breakneck negotiations over the past week, both parties agreed to move past the embarrassing episode by compromising on a rewrite of the abortion language.

The legislation offers new resources to human trafficking victims, increases fines on the promoters of sex slavery, creates block grants for juvenile trafficking victims and gives law enforcement new tools to combat the trafficking trade. Those components have consistently drawn support from all 100 senators; it was only the bill’s abortion restrictions that produced a tense, partisan floor fight.

In the initial version of the bill, money for victims came from fines, not the government’s general fund. But the fine money was subject to Hyde amendment prohibitions on spending federal dollars on abortions, which Democrats worried was an expansion of Hyde’s reach.

The solution reached by party leaders was to funnel money into the restitution account from two streams: Fines on traffickers for legal services and from the general fund for health care, where it’s already subject to the Hyde abortion restrictions.

Senators admitted that the bill hadn’t changed much from its initial, non-controversial form, and most lawmakers were eager to move on.

“This is called democracy. It’s all about the end result. We couldn’t get it passed and now we’re going to pass it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

The compromise and the descriptions of the legislation by party leaders elicited contrasting responses from abortion activists, with Planned Parenthood praising Democratic leaders’ for holding the line on the Hyde amendment and NARAL Pro-Choice America panning the compromise because it “still denies the most vulnerable women necessary access to vital health services.” The anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List backed the compromise.

Party leaders also drew contrasting lessons from the debacle. Democrats said they’ve proven to McConnell that when they stick together the GOP will get nothing, while McConnell said his unusual tactic of linking Lynch’s nomination to the trafficking bill was ultimately successful and he had no regrets.

But members of the rank and file said the idea of sorting winners and losers from the ugly conflict was impossible. The biggest lesson learned might be that social issues like abortion can still cripple the Senate — and cause a high-profile nomination to languish weeks longer than it otherwise would have.

“People had strong principled feelings about it. No one was sitting around going: ‘We’ve got a strategy to make them look bad,’” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). “We just stood our ground. And unfortunately Loretta Lynch’s nomination was a victim of that process, which it never should have been.”