Senators found a new way to achieve partisan gridlock Tuesday as Democrats filibustered a bipartisan anti-human trafficking bill, and Republicans countered by saying they won’t confirm Loretta Lynch, President Obama’s pick to be the new attorney general, until he convinces his party to drop its blockade.
Democrats say the GOP pulled a fast one by slipping a provision into the human trafficking bill prohibiting federal money from paying for abortions for trafficking victims. Republicans say the language is boilerplate, and say they’ve been stunned by the filibuster on a bill that a dozen Democrats are actually co-sponsoring.
Underlying the abortion fight is a bigger test of wills between Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, and the man he replaced as majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. Mr. McConnell is desperate to show he can make the Senate operate better than Mr. Reid, but Democrats are intent on using many of the same tactics, such as filibustering, that Mr. McConnell used to foil Mr. Obama’s agenda.
“Republicans came in saying they would know how to govern. What a mess they’ve made of it,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
The GOP, however, accused Democrats of gumming up the works on purpose, trying to embarrass Republicans and to prevent having to take tough votes on amendments.
“Harry Reid and his Democratic caucus don’t like to get to bills and vote on amendments, because they’re afraid to show their hand to the voters,” Sen. Roger F. Wicker, Mississippi Republican and chairman of the Senate Republicans’ campaign committee, said.
His organization has already moved to try to make Mr. Reid, who is up for re-election in 2016, pay a political price, announcing robocalls aimed at female voters in Nevada blaming him for the impasse.
Mr. Reid won Tuesday’s fight, though not without several defections. Four Democrats joined 52 Republicans in backing the trafficking bill and the abortion provision, though that was still four shy of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster.
Two Republicans were absent, but even if all of them are present, the GOP would still need to find two Democrats to switch their votes and back the bill.
Mr. Reid predicted he will hold his troops together.
Democrats are incensed that the GOP is refusing to vote to confirm Ms. Lynch until after the trafficking debate. They say that puts Republicans in the way of history, since Ms. Lynch would be the first black woman to run the Justice Department.
The abortion fight broke out last week after Democrats said they belatedly noticed a provision in the human trafficking legislation that says none of the penalties collected from convicted traffickers and designated for a victims’ fund could be spent on abortions. That prohibition on federal funds going to abortion, known as the Hyde amendment, has been added to federal laws for four decades.
But Democrats said the prohibition usually applies to taxpayers’ money, not to fees or fines. They said the trafficking bill amounts to an expansion of the Hyde amendment — and pro-choice groups have insisted Democrats make a stand against it.
While Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, has withdrawn as a co-sponsor of the trafficking legislation, a dozen Democrats are still listed as co-authors. That led to an odd situation Tuesday, where 10 of those authors voted for the filibuster to block their own bill.
Democrats accuse the GOP of trying to slip the language by them, while Republicans say either Democrats didn’t read the bill or are being disingenuous now.
Ms. Lynch, meanwhile, is caught up in the fight. Mr. McConnell had initially said she would earn a vote this week, but after Tuesday’s filibuster he said she won’t get a vote until after the trafficking bill is done.
Given that the Senate will dedicate next week to voting on the 2016 budget, and then take a two-week break coinciding with Easter, that would push a Lynch vote into mid-April.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said it would be “astonishing” if the GOP does not confirm Ms. Lynch, calling her a “historic” candidate, and he mocked Mr. McConnell for saying the president needs to rein his Democratic troops in.
“I’m actually surprised that a seasoned veteran leader of the United States Senate like Mitch McConnell would need the assistance of the president of the United States to pass a common-sense piece of legislation like a child sex trafficking bill,” Mr. Earnest chided.
Ms. Lynch had a strong confirmation hearing performance, but she has seen her support among Senate Republicans tumble after she declined to criticize the president’s Nov. 20 immigration actions, which granted a temporary amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.
In her confirmation hearing she defended the Justice Department’s legal reasoning backing the policy. A federal judge last month ruled the policy likely illegal and has issued an injunction halting it.
Four Republicans have publicly committed to backing Ms. Lynch, which, combined with the Democratic Caucus, would give her exactly 50 votes — and Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s tie-breaking vote would confirm her.
Several other Republicans had been coy about their stance, but a couple of them on Tuesday said they had decided they couldn’t back her.
“This is an opportunity, within the Senate rules, to express my disapproval of the president’s abuse of executive authority, and it’s an opportunity I intend to take,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican.
Ms. Lynch would replace Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who has served since the beginning of the Obama administration and has earned the ire of Republicans. Democrats said the quicker Ms. Lynch is confirmed, the faster Mr. Holder leaves.
Even as Ms. Lynch faces troubles, Republicans announced plans to try to fill the deputy attorney general’s slot. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley said he will hold a hearing next week on Sally Quillian Yates, Mr. Obama’s pick for the No. 2 post at the Justice Department.