WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats threatened Wednesday to torpedo bipartisan legislation combating human sex trafficking in a dispute over a Republican-backed abortion provision they said they had failed to notice for nearly two months.
Lawmakers in both parties bemoaned the bill's evident fate, but neither Republicans nor Democrats seemed willing to give ground.
"This is really not an honorable time or a laudable time in the history of the United States Senate," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
As drafted, the measure would crack down on what lawmakers in both parties described a seamy underworld of drugs and human sex trafficking akin to modern-day slavery. Fines paid by those convicted of the crimes would go into a fund to help victims.
But the specifics of the legislation itself were far overshadowed by a who-knew-what-when dispute over a reliably contentious issue.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Democrats had, in fact, known of the abortion-related provision that Republicans backed, citing discussion among aides of both parties.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in remarks on the Senate floor that "a number of people feel that it was by sleight-of-hand" that the provision was included in the measure, while "others say staff should have seen it was in the bill." A day earlier, others in his party had said flatly that no one on their side of the aisle had been informed.
At issue was a provision to bar the use of fines paid by convicted traffickers for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the pregnant woman is in jeopardy.
Republicans noted that federal law has long banned the use of federal funds for abortions except in limited circumstances. But Democrats said the legislation would mark a significant expansion of the restrictions since it applies to personal funds paid in fines.
They also noted the restriction against the use of fine money would be permanent, while the one that applies to federal funds would lapse unless renewed on a year-by-year basis. The legislation makes no change in the existing law, known as the Hyde Amendment.
The events presented a difficult challenge for Democrats, forcing them to decide if their support for abortion rights justified blocking passage of a sex trafficking measure designed to help children and women. They privately conceded they lacked the votes to strip out the abortion portion of the bill they oppose, although they expressed confidence they had enough support to prevent passage of the entire measure.
At the same time, they were forced to consider whether their aides had failed to read the bill closely enough to discover the provision when the bill was made public in January, or when it was approved unanimously in the Senate Judiciary Committee late last month.
A statement released by a spokeswoman for the Democrats on the panel said Sen. Patrick Leahy, the party's senior committee member, did not know in advance that the abortion-related provision had been included, nor did his aides.
A spokesman for Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the bill's leading Democratic supporter, said the lawmaker first learned of it Monday.
Democrats also circulated an email written by a Republican aide summarizing a list of changes that had been made in the legislation from an earlier version written last year. It contained no mention of abortion.