A once-promising bill to fight human trafficking inched closer to failure Thursday, as outnumbered Democrats vowed to filibuster unless the GOP removed provisions that would prevent federal funds from being spent on abortion.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered colleagues a chance to vote on an amendment stripping the language, but Democrats would likely lose the vote, so Minority Leader Harry Reid said they will block the bill until the GOP concedes.
“It’s the most unusual situation I can ever recall,” said Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
But Mr. Reid said his filibuster was treading a path Republicans carved, using the filibuster to thwart President Obama’s priorities.
“Let’s not talk about dysfunction of the Senate,” said Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat. “Because the book on that has been written by the Republican minority for the last six years.”
The bill under consideration would fight human slavery and sexual exploitation by beefing up law enforcement and imposing financial penalties on offenders. In turn, those funds would boost programs that help victims rebuild their lives.
Ten Democrats signed onto the bill when it was filed in January, and it breezed through committee, offering a glimmer of bipartisanship for a chamber steeped in fights over the administration’s approach to Iran, immigration and health care.
All that changed Tuesday, when pro-choice groups and their Democratic allies objected to what they called a “sneak attack” on abortion over a provision that applies the so-called Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funds from being spent on abortion, to the penalties charged under the law on human traffickers.
Those penalties would go to victims’ compensation funds, and Democrats said that’s a different type of money than revenue from taxpayers, so the GOP is trying to expand the Hyde Amendment.
“This language paves the way for political leaders in the future to interfere even more with a woman’s basic personal health decisions,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat. “And it sets the tone for a dramatic expansion of abortion restriction for years to come.”
Republicans say the language was publicly available for several weeks, has already cleared a committee unanimously and isn’t groundbreaking. They questioned why Democrats were raising the eleventh-hour objection.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, who authored the bill, said Democrats have approved similar Hyde Amendment restrictions dozens of times in annual funding bills and in Obamacare.
“Basically they’re trying to relitigate something that’s been the law of the land since 1976, that’s been included in a lot of pieces of legislation they voted for,” Mr. Cornyn said.
Pro-life groups said not including the Hyde language would tilt the playing field toward pro-choice groups.
“The Justice Department and other government agencies receive funds from many sources, but once they are received by the government, they become federal funds,” the National Right to Life Committee wrote. “If such funds are transmitted to abortionists to pay for abortions, that constitutes federal funding for abortion.”