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Anti-human-trafficking bill gets caught up in abortion politics in Senate

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks to the media at the Capitol on March 10. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

This post has been updated.

Proving that there is virtually no issue that cannot get mired in partisan combat, an anti-human trafficking bill now under Senate consideration is in limbo after Democrats accused Republicans of sneaking anti-abortion language into the legislation before it hit the Senate floor.

The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, authored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and sporting a bipartisan stable of cosponsors, was supposed to be a turn toward comity after a couple of contentious weeks on Capitol Hill. What's not to like about a bill that would increase penalties for those convicted of slavery, human smuggling and sexual exploitation of children and provide for additional compensation for their victims?

On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) locked arms in calling on their colleagues to support the measure. "I doubt if there will be problems on my side," Reid said, according to The Hill. "If there is, I will work to clear them."

But by midday Tuesday, the good feelings had eroded into a bout of finger-pointing, with Senate Democrats accusing Republicans of subterfuge in slipping language into the bill that would extend the longstanding Hyde Amendment barring the use of taxpayer funds for abortions to the new Domestic Trafficking Victims’ Fund.

The word "abortion" does not appear in the trafficking bill, but there is language specifying that the victims' fund "shall be subject to the limitations on the use or expending of amounts described in sections 506 and 507 of division H of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014 ... to the same extent as if amounts in the Fund were funds appropriated under division H of such Act."

That would apply the Hyde Amendment language to the new fund, which is supported by a proposed $5,000 assessment on those convicted of a wide variety of federal crimes related to sexual abuse and human trafficking.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) accused Republicans of "trying pull a fast one" in inserting the abortion provision. Two Democratic leaders, Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), both said Democrats had been advised that it was not among the changes made to the bill since it was taken up last year by a Democratic-controlled Senate. Earlier in the day, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the committee that unanimously forwarded the bill, said Judiciary Committee Democrats were "assured" the provision was not included.

In an early January e-mail reviewed by the Post, a Republican Judiciary Committee staffer sent a Democratic staffer a summary of changes to the previous version of the bill, in seven bullet points. The abortion provision was not among them.

"This bill will not be used as an opportunity for Republicans to double down on their efforts to restrict a woman's health-care choices," Murray said. "It is absolutely wrong and, honestly, it is shameful. I know there are a whole lot of us who are going to fight hard against any attempt to expand the Hyde Amendment and permanently impact women's health."

But Republican leaders — including Cornyn, the majority whip — pushed back on the notion that the abortion language represented any kind of subterfuge. A Cornyn aide suggested that Democrats knew very well about the language before the committee vote -- including, the aide said, Leahy staffers -- and thus were being "disingenuous."

"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," Cornyn said. "So 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 the 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. None of that strikes me as plausible."

Republicans and Democrats are also sparring about the impact of the abortion language. Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid, called it a "significant expansion of the scope of the Hyde amendment" by applying it to fees and fines, not just taxpayer funds. He also said the rider in the trafficking bill would be permanent -- unlike the Hyde Amendment, which must be continually attacked to each year's appropriations -- and thus "could lead to a dramatic expansion of abortion restrictions in future years."

Cornyn took to the Senate floor late Tuesday to rebut that notion, noting that the 2009 health reform law included a similar restriction. "Democrats have supported legislation consistent with the Hyde Amendment for a long, long time," he said. "My hope is this: that members of the United States Senate will rise above this -- this agreement, this posturing, this attempt to try to play gotcha at the expense of these victims of human trafficking."

Reid said debate would continue Wednesday on the bill, and a Democratic aide suggested the tiff could be overcome if McConnell allows a vote on an amendment removing the abortion language from the bill -- an amendment that is likely to fail.

"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," Reid said. "And ... this bill will not come off this floor as long as that language is in the bill."