WASHINGTON (AP) — Bipartisan legislation to crack down on human trafficking turned unexpectedly controversial Tuesday because of a Republican-backed provision relating to abortion that Democrats said they failed to notice.
Democrats privately conceded they lack the votes to strip out the abortion provision, and some lawmakers suggested they would attempt to prevent a final vote on the entire measure instead.
The disputed provision would permanently prohibit the use of federal funds to pay for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the woman was jeopardized. The restrictions have been enacted annually for decades.
It also would prohibit the use of fines paid by convicted sex traffickers to pay for most abortions, a provision that Democrats said amounted to an expansion on existing restrictions.
"Let me be very clear, 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," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. A short while later, Democrats slowed work on the bill to a crawl.
Republicans scoffed at Democratic claims that they had slipped the provision into the trafficking legislation and said Democrats had well over a month to review the measure in advance.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas., the bill's leading sponsor, pointed out that it was made public in mid-January, and cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee last month with the support of senators from both parties.
"'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," he said.
"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," he said in remarks on the Senate floor.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who spoke immediately afterward, did not respond directly.
While Cornyn did not say so outright, some Republican officials said Democratic aides had, in fact, been informed.
Democrats privately conceded they should have noticed the provision, accused Cornyn's office of failing to include mention of it in an email listing differences between last year's bill and a revised one drafted this year.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who has been a prominent supporter of the bill, said in a statement the abortion provision "needs to be fixed."
The bill itself is designed to crack down on human traffickers and would create a fund to aid their victims.