WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans said Thursday the Senate will debate legislation to crack down on sex trafficking until it passes, despite Democratic objections to an abortion-related provision they say they failed to notice for more than two months.
A test vote was set for Tuesday on the measure. The struggle was unusual, even by modern standards for congressional dysfunction.
"I don't believe that Democrats didn't read the legislation," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the bill's leading supporter.
For their part, Democrats accused Republicans of failing to include the provision on a list of changes that had been made in the bill since an earlier version in 2014. They "are now saying that trusting them was a mistake," said the Democratic leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.
The rhetoric aside, Democrats said they would block the bill's passage and called on Republicans to take out the provision relating to abortion. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered to allow a yes-or-no vote to do so, but Democrats rejected the offer, knowing they likely lack the strength to prevail.
The measure, which cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support, would crack down on an underworld of drugs and human sex trafficking that lawmakers liken to modern-day slavery. Fines paid by those convicted of the crimes would go into a fund to help victims.
But the principal provisions of the bill were far overshadowed by the dispute over a requirement that said none of the money in the victims' fund could be used to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or if the life of the woman were in jeopardy. Similar restrictions on the use of federal funds have been in place for nearly three decades.
Abortion-rights supporters said the legislation would expand that by applying them to the personal money that convicted sex traffickers pay into a government fund. They also complained that the prohibition on using money in the victims fund for abortion would be permanent, while the rule relating to government money is approved annually.
The legislation was made public in January and cleared the Judiciary Committee in February. Even so, Democrats say they failed to notice the presence of the abortion-related provision until earlier in the week.
Lawmakers in both parties generally rely on aides to read the fine print of legislation and let them know its contents. In addition to their own aides, senators have the benefit of committee staff. A Democratic spokeswoman for the Judiciary Committee said earlier in the week that none of the panel's aides was aware that the legislation contained the abortion-related provision.