WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats blocked debate on stalled human trafficking legislation for a second day Wednesday as a Democratic senator's office belatedly conceded that a staff aide knew weeks ago that the measure included a controversial abortion-related provision.
Democrats have said for more than a week that their side of the aisle was not aware of the provision until a few days ago, nearly two months after the legislation was made public and long after a bipartisan vote in the Judiciary Committee on Feb. 24.
Several Democrats have accused Republicans of sneaking it into the measure without their discovering it.
But Julia Krahe, a spokeswoman for Sen. Amy Klobuchar, said an aide to the Minnesota Democrat "had seen the language" relating to abortion before the committee voted.
The aide "did not inform the senator. The senator takes responsibility for the work of her office and missing the provision and she is focused on moving forward to find a way to fix the bill and protect victims of trafficking," Krahe added. Her disclosure came in an email Tuesday evening in response to an inquiry first made a week ago.
Klobuchar is a leading Democratic advocate for the trafficking bill.
It was not clear if the Democratic aide informed any other staff members or officials in outside groups involved in the measure. Advocates with the National Organization for Women, the National Women's Law Center and several other women's groups said at a press conference Wednesday that they had not known of the provision.
Democrats erupted in anger last week, when they said they had belatedly discovered the presence of the provision.
The legislation is designed to help victims of sexual trafficking, establishing a fund to do so that would receive money paid by convicted sexual traffickers as part of their court cases. The measure says none of the money could be used to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or if the life of the woman were in danger.
Current law contains an identical prohibition on the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. But Democratic lawmakers said the move by Republicans to add it to the victims trafficking bill amounted to an expansion of existing restrictions, and vowed to block the legislation in response.
The result has been gridlock for more than a week on the bill, which once seemed primed to pass easily. Democrats blocked the measure's advance Tuesday and again Wednesday. The vote Wednesday was 57-41, short of the 60 needed.
The end game was uncertain, but several senators but were looking for a compromise. "I just believe this can be worked out," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of those involved in talks.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, lead author of the bill, hinted at one possible way out in comments on the Senate floor, suggesting making the victims' fund part of Congress' regular annual appropriations process. That would make it subject to annual abortion funding bans in current law instead of creating a new prohibition.
Complicating the standoff, Republicans have tied the confirmation of Attorney General-designate Loretta Lynch to the bill by saying no vote would occur on the appointment until the legislation passes.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., evoking images of the civil rights struggle of a half-century ago, accused Republicans of putting Lynch "in the back of the bus" by delaying her confirmation.
If confirmed, she would become the first black female attorney general, replacing Eric Holder, the first African-American in the job.
Lynch was nominated last fall and Democrats are growing increasingly agitated over the holdup in confirming her, although they were in control of the Senate for part of that time and failed to call for a vote.
"Loretta Lynch, the first African-American woman nominated to be attorney general, is asked to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to the Senate calendar," Durbin said. "That is unfair. It's unjust. It is beneath the decorum and dignity of the United States Senate."
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell countered that the Lynch nomination was next on the schedule, and blamed Democrats for any delay.
"The only thing holding up that vote is the Democrats' filibuster of a bill that would help prevent kids from being sold into sex slavery," said the spokesman, Don Stewart.
"The sooner they allow the Senate to pass that bipartisan bill, the sooner the Senate can move to the Lynch nomination."