- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A bill to combat human trafficking was supposed to be a major bipartisan achievement — instead it’s devolved into a bitter fight over abortion, with Democrats objecting to language that would prevent spending federal funds for the procedure and Republicans saying it’s the same provision Democrats have accepted dozens of times before.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who just a few days ago praised the GOP for the bill and said his Democratic troops were on board, vowed Wednesday to block the legislation until the abortion language is stripped.

“We can debate how it’s in the bill. Some said by sleight of hand, some said Democratic staff should have seen it was in there. It’s in there and has to go out,” the Nevada Democrat said. “Unless that language is taken out of the bill, there will be no bill. We cannot have this legislation hijacked by an abortion issue.”

Republicans said they filed the bill several weeks ago, and it cleared committee without any objections, so it is disingenuous for Democrats to object now. They accused Democrats of being beholden to pro-choice groups who only recently registered their complaints, forcing the about-face.

“It’s pathetic,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said. “What have we come to around here that we’re so doggone partisan that we can’t even pass a bill to protect children?”

The standoff is an unexpected turn for the legislation, which would crack down on human slavery and sexual exploitation while paying restitution to victims through fees levied against perpetrators.

Buoyed by 10 Democratic cosponsors, the bill breezed through committee and offered a dose of comity for a chamber steeped in partisan fights over the administration’s approach to Iran, immigration and health care reform.

Republicans will try later this week to muster the 60 votes needed to overcome Mr. Reid’s filibuster, hoping that enough Democratic co-sponsors join the GOP.

The standoff took root Tuesday, when pro-choice groups and their Democratic allies objected to what they called a “sneak attack” on abortion rights in the bill.

“Trying to slip a women’s health restriction into a women’s safety bill is like slipping a tractor ban into a farm bill,” Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Democrats said they’d been assured the bill wouldn’t deal with abortion, but the office of Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who sponsored the bill, disputed those assertions and said Senate Democrats either didn’t read the bill or their staffers didn’t flag the Hyde language for them.

Known as the Hyde Amendment, the language bans the use of taxpayer funding for abortion and is frequently attached to annual funding bills.

Democrats say the Hyde restrictions have traditionally applied to taxpayer funds, but in the new bill they also apply to penalties collected from traffickers, which the Democrats say is a different kind of money. They also say the Hyde Amendment is typically only added to spending bills and expires each year, when the trafficking bill would become permanent.

“For these reasons, the precedent set by this new language could lead to a dramatic expansion of abortion restrictions in future years,” Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said Tuesday after the issue burst into view.

A Cornyn aide rebutted him Wednesday, saying the trafficking bill is a five-year authorization and not permanent. The aide also said Democrats voted for Obamacare, which included language similar to the Hyde restrictions, and which also doesn’t expire each year.

Mr. Cornyn said Democrats were free to offer an amendment to strip out the abortion provision, but Mr. Reid has rejected that approach since he doesn’t have the votes to win. Instead, he must threaten the entire bill to try to force the GOP to cave.

Mr. Cornyn pleaded with Democrats to look past their objections.

“All of a sudden we want to try to revisit a provision that’s been the law of the land for 39 years,” he said. “I hope that something happens between now and the end of the week that causes some of our friends to reconsider this idea that they’re going to filibuster this bill that many of them co-sponsored and many of them voted for.”

Brandon Bouchard, a spokesman for the Polaris Project, a leading anti-trafficking organization, said his group would prefer a version that does not include the Hyde language.

“The bipartisan support to address modern slavery,” he said, “should not be held up by a separate debate on partisan issues.”

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