A long-delayed confirmation vote for President Obama’s attorney general nominee remained elusive Thursday as senators continue deliberating over unrelated legislation that has left Loretta Lynch’s nomination in limbo for months.
The Senate completed its final votes for the week on Thursday afternoon without breaking a 6-week-old partisan impasse on an anti-human-trafficking bill, which Republican leaders say must be done before proceeding to Lynch.
There were, however, signs Thursday that the deadlock could soon ease.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) canceled a planned morning vote to break the Democratic filibuster of the anti-trafficking bill, citing new negotiations that could resolve a sharp conflict over abortion restrictions embedded in the bill.
Late Thursday afternoon, a Republican leadership aide not authorized to comment openly said that talks would continue and that the two sides are “closer to a deal than we have been in the past.” Earlier in the day, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said, “It seems like there’s a serious possibility of coming to agreement.”
Should a deal be reached, the Senate could move quickly on the anti-trafficking bill and take up the Lynch nomination next week.
While negotiations were taking place behind closed doors Thursday, senators on both sides of the abortion debate talked tough about the deadlock.
“The rationale for this filibuster seems to shift by the day, and it’s almost completely incomprehensible,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “The victims who have survived brutal abuse don’t need more . . . illogical contortions and justifications, they just need help.”
On MSNBC Thursday, Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) threatened a rare attempt to “force a vote” on Lynch through a long-shot procedural move. “We’ve put up with this far too long, and we’re going to need to have a vote on her very soon . . . or I’ll create one,” he said.
There were halting attempts at breaking the impasse earlier in the week. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the anti-trafficking bill’s lead author, offered amendments that kept some abortion language in the bill but sought to address Democrats’ concerns by funneling the fine proceeds into the Treasury for later appropriations, to which abortion restrictions known as the Hyde Amendment have been routinely attached for four decades.
But Democrats balked. “At the end of the day, we will not accept language that simply hides the Hyde,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said Tuesday.
On Thursday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Cornyn’s proposal a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and an “unprecedented expansion” of the Hyde Amendment, while a colleague suggested that Democrats would object to any abortion restriction in the bill, which sets up a fund to benefit the victims of human trafficking.
“There is a fundamental divide,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “Abortion services are necessary for the freedom of these survivors, . . . It is fundamental to this bill that they should have access to reproductive rights.”
The Senate has voted five times to break the filibuster, with Republicans falling two votes short of the 60 necessary to move forward. With his latest amendment, Cornyn had hoped to peel off a few Democrats to jump that hurdle: “I’ll take all the brave, independent-minded members of the Democratic caucus,” he said Tuesday.
Late that night, as senators took votes on a Medicare bill facing a midnight deadline, Cornyn engaged in long conversations with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), the lead Democratic author of the anti-trafficking bill, as well as Stabenow and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.).
But Democrats have held firm since the abortion dispute exploded March 10, and pressure has only increased on McConnell to move forward with the Lynch nomination.
On Thursday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest noted that Lynch has waited 49 days since gaining approval from the Judiciary Committee for a floor vote — more than twice as long as the previous seven nominees for attorney general combined.
“That is an unconscionable delay, and there’s no excuse or explanation for it,” Earnest said.