Anti-human trafficking bill expected to pass Senate
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Bipartisan legislation aimed at helping the victims of sex trafficking moved toward Senate passage Wednesday after lawmakers solved a partisan dispute over abortion that had sidetracked the bill for weeks.
"An effort to fight back against human trafficking in our country is, without question, no place for gridlock and dysfunction," Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said on the Senate floor. "It certainly shouldn't have taken this long--but I'm pleased that we were able to work together, find common ground, and reach an agreement."
The legislation, which looked likely to pass by a wide margin Wednesday afternoon, would boost law enforcement resources and create a new fund to help victims. Its approval would clear the way for a vote on President Barack Obama's pick for attorney general, federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch, whose nomination was put off by GOP leaders until the trafficking bill could be dealt with.
After resolving the abortion dispute earlier this week, Republican leaders including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas resisted efforts by conservatives in their caucus to add immigration-related amendments to the bill that could have invited still more controversy, senators and aides said Wednesday.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said that "I yielded to higher authorities against my better judgment" and withheld an amendment allowing for punishing parents for immigrating illegally with their kids.
"We ended up with no immigration amendments and it could have altered the nature of the bill and debate," Sessions said. "They wanted another bipartisan accomplishment and it wouldn't have achieved it."
In addition to Sessions' amendment, several others related to immigration were held off, according to senators and aides, including one by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., seeking to eliminate the Constitution's guarantee that anyone born in this country has U.S. citizenship.
Lynch's attorney general confirmation vote could come on Thursday. She would replace Eric Holder and become the first black woman to hold the nation's top law enforcement job. Democrats have railed against the months-long holdup on her confirmation, with Obama last week calling the delays "embarrassing," even though Democrats controlled the Senate for part of that time and didn't bring her up for a vote.
The trafficking bill had appeared set for easy passage in the Senate earlier this year until Democrats started raising alarms about language they said represented an expansion of existing prohibitions on spending federal money to perform abortions. A deal negotiated by Cornyn, Murray and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada ensures that a new pot of non-taxpayer money in the victims' fund -- paid for by criminals' fines -- could not go to pay for any medical services, and therefore abortion restrictions wouldn't apply.
A second stream of money would also go into the fund and be available for medical and health services. It would be $5 million previously appropriated by Congress for Community Health Centers, which is already subject to federal prohibitions on abortion funding.
"This legislation, I think, actually is a very positive step because what it demonstrates is that we have not fallen deaf to the cries of those who actually need our help, the victims of human trafficking," Cornyn said on the floor. "This legislation will be instrumental in helping victims of sexual abuse and trafficking recover from a life in bondage."
The House has passed a similar bill.
Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House was reserving judgment until it had a chance to review the final language in the deal, but he also said the endorsement from some Democrats was "certainly an encouraging sign."
"If we see strong Democratic support, including from champions for women's health care like Patty Murray, that certainly seems like the kind of thing the president would be able to support," Earnest said.
The pot of money at issue was quite small, but outside interest groups, including Planned Parenthood, got involved and the bill stalled, even as lawmakers in both parties bemoaned the Senate's inability to advance such a bill.
Tuesday's deal allows all sides to claim victory: Republicans for ensuring money for medical procedures is subject to the existing abortion restriction, and Democrats for establishing that the existing restriction isn't expanded to a new source of money.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, applauded the agreement, saying, "Thankfully, Sens. Reid and Murray and other women's health champions held the line" in the negotiations.
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