WASHINGTON (AP) — A Senate stalemate over legislation to combat human trafficking deepened Thursday, almost certainly delaying a confirmation vote on the president's attorney general nominee, Loretta Lynch, until mid-April.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had planned a vote on Lynch's long-delayed nomination this week, but put it off when bipartisan support for the trafficking bill collapsed in a partisan spat over abortion. He said he wanted to finish the trafficking bill first.
That goal looked farther off than ever Thursday, as competing proposals were advanced to break the impasse, and both quickly rejected by partisans on either side.
"I'm kind of devoid of additional ideas right now," Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas remarked Thursday afternoon after his compromise proposal had been dismissed by Democrats. He, in turn, shot down a competing plan from moderate Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.
Together the events hardened the impasse on the anti-trafficking bill. The legislation had looked primed for easy passage until last week, when Democrats said they discovered language in the bill barring money in a victims' fund from being used to pay for abortions.
The outlook for the bill now looks poor, although senators of both parties insist they still want to find a way for it to pass. At the same time, Lynch now looks like she's in for an even lengthier wait after first being nominated last fall. The Senate plans to turn next week to the budget, after which Congress will be on a two-week recess.
Lynch's predicament had Democrats fuming, even though they were in control of the Senate when she was first nominated and failed to call her up for a vote.
On Wednesday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., accused Republicans of putting Lynch at "the back of the bus" with the lengthy delays, a comment that incensed Republicans and drew a heated response on the Senate floor Thursday from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Lynch would become the nation's first black female attorney general.
"Such inflammatory rhetoric has no place in this body and serves no purpose other than to further divide us," McCain angrily said.
Durbin defended himself. "All I'm saying is she deserves the same fair treatment we have given to other nominees for this job," he said.
The timing with the Lynch nomination has only complicated the politics around the trafficking bill, leading to lamentations from all sides that the Senate has been unable to advance a piece of legislation that enjoyed such widespread support. Democrats complain that the abortion provision was snuck into the bill, although it was there for weeks and one Democratic senator's office has acknowledged an aide was aware of it.
"If we cannot approve a bill to deal with human trafficking then what will we be able to deal with?" Collins asked. "We have to get past the tendency to score partisan political points that has affected too many bills on both sides of the aisle. In this case, it's simply too important."
The back-and-forth came as a vote to move the trafficking bill forward failed 56 to 42, short of the 60 votes needed. Similar procedural votes on Tuesday and Wednesday yielded similar outcomes, with Republicans joined by a bloc of four moderate Democrats — Heitkamp, Bob Casey of Pennyslvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Existing law has included annual restrictions on taxpayer spending for abortion for decades. But the victims' fund envisioned by the trafficking legislation would be made up of fees paid by criminals, and Democrats say applying restrictions on abortion spending to that new pot of money is an expansion they can't accept.
Each of the proposals advanced during the day sought to deal with the issue by routing the victims' fund through Congress' regular annual appropriations process. But Cornyn maintained language in the underlying bill referencing an abortion restriction, while Collins and Heitkamp removed that reference. Although the practical impact did not seem too different, Democrats refused to accept Cornyn's plan, while Cornyn called the proposal from Collins and Heitkamp a non-starter.