The Senate had two things to do this week — pass a bill cracking down on sex slavery, and vote on the nomination of Loretta Lynch to be attorney general — and it did neither of them.
So barring an eleventh-hour weekend compromise, Lynch, who would become the first black woman to serve as attorney general, will wait until at least mid-April before a confirmation vote is held, extending an unusually long wait that Democrats have tried to turn to their political advantage by portraying the delay as tied to Lynch’s race and gender.
At a Wednesday event at the Capitol, female senators and activists framed the holdup as part of a Republican “war on women,” while nearby on the Senate floor, the second-ranking Democrat said Lynch is being “asked to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to the Senate calendar” — an unmistakable reference to civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) showed no sign of caving to Democrats’ demands, announcing his intention Thursday to move on to the federal budget on Monday, thus pushing back the Lynch nomination until after a two-week recess set to begin Thursday.
In separate interviews Friday, President Obama and Eric H. Holder Jr., the sitting attorney general, called on Republicans to act.
“This is our top law enforcement office,” Obama told the Huffington Post. “Nobody denies that she’s well-qualified. We need to go ahead and get her done.”
Said Holder to MSNBC, “The notion that we would be here, where we are deadlocked about a woman who is unbelievably qualified . . . is almost inconceivable to me.”
Adding to the pressure to confirm Lynch was Rudy Giuliani, the former Republican mayor of New York who, like Lynch, served as a federal prosecutor.
“Republicans torture Democrats, Democrats torture Republicans, and who started it, only God knows,” Giuliani said Friday, lamenting the confirmation process in a conference call with reporters. “And it’s now become the Hatfields and McCoys, and I think it’s really depriving us of good people in government.”
In this case, the Democrats have in large part tortured themselves.
Democratic leaders in the Senate have admitted they could have moved on the nomination during the lame-duck session after the November election, when they still held the majority. Instead, they chose to focus on confirming judges to lifetime appointments.
The more recent obstacle has been the Democrats’ failure to address a controversial antiabortion provision tucked into an otherwise innocuous bill addressing human trafficking before it reached the floor. McConnell is delaying the Lynch nomination until the anti-trafficking bill is completed as leverage to break the Democratic opposition to the abortion language.
“Democrats decided to yank their support for an anti-slavery bill for one simple reason: Because far-left lobbyists said they needed to, not because the American people said so,” McConnell said Thursday.
Later in the day, senators floated compromises aimed at breaking the deadlock that has gummed up the upper chamber’s floor for nearly two weeks, but key players have stopped short of embracing any deal.
The antiabortion language, a version of the “Hyde amendment” that has long been attached to appropriations bills, would prevent a new compensation fund for trafficking victims from being used for abortions.
Democrats cried foul, arguing that those who have been forced into the sex trade in particular should not be subject to such restrictions. And they said the anti-trafficking bill would extend the abortion restriction to “non-taxpayer funds” — in this case, fines from convicted traffickers — for the first time.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the bill’s lead author and the majority whip, suggested Thursday that the abortion provision could be left in the bill but the fund could be made “subject to appropriations” to overcome Democratic objections.
“Now that we’ve made a proposal to them to give them what they’ve asked for and still preserve the 39-year limitation on the use of public dollars for abortion,” Cornyn said, “can they take yes for an answer?”
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the Cornyn fix “does not solve the problem” and suggested the Senate take up a House bill that passed last year that avoided the abortion debate entirely by authorizing the victims fund through standard taxpayer revenue rather than tapping offender fines.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) came to the Senate floor late Thursday afternoon with a solution along those lines. Their amendment does not include any specific antiabortion language, but it makes the victims fund subject to appropriations — and hence application of the standard Hyde amendment.
Cornyn said he was not inclined to completely remove the antiabortion provision from the bill, even if it is all but certain to be applied during appropriations. And a leading Democrat, Patty Murray of Washington, also threw cold water on the compromise, saying, “I will not support an alternative that expands harmful restrictions on women’s reproductive rights, including this latest proposal.”
A third consecutive day of votes to break the Democratic filibuster failed Thursday, with Republicans two short of the 60 votes necessary to close debate and move forward.
Before the Senate adjourned, Cornyn said that if no compromise was reached Thursday, discussions would continue through the weekend. If enough senators agree to move forward with the anti-trafficking bill, it and the Lynch nomination could conceivably be brought to a vote late Monday by unanimous consent, leaving enough time to take up the budget before the recess.
Lynch’s confirmation is not assured, largely because of her defense of Obama’s executive actions on immigration.Several GOP senators — including mainstream conservatives such as Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee — said this week they would oppose the confirmation for that reason.
On Friday, Giuliani and former FBI director Louis Freeh, who served presidents of both parties, said they were lobbying Republican senators to back Lynch, whom they hailed as a well-qualified nominee and a distinguished prosecutor.
“Look, the nomination is being held up for political reasons,” Freeh said. “The fact of the matter is, she supports the immigration policy of the president. What nominee would come before the Senate for the attorney generalship who did not support the policy of the president?”
Obama, in the Huffington Post interview, declined to join the suggestions that race and gender bias might figure into the delay. “I don’t know about that,” he said, instead pointing to “Senate dysfunction” and GOP “stubbornness.” Holder, speaking to MSNBC, blamed “D.C. politics, Washington at its worst.”
Added Obama, “The irony is, of course, that the Republicans really dislike Mr. Holder. If they really want to get rid of him, the best way to do it is to go ahead and get Loretta Lynch confirmed.”