WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate's 100 members don't agree on much. They agreed they wanted legislation to help the victims of sex trafficking. Then the bill got caught up in the emotional and uncompromising politics of abortion.
Now the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act is stalled, its outlook uncertain. Democrats are insisting Republicans remove an abortion funding provision. Republicans are refusing to do so and demanding that Democrats back down.
President Barack Obama's attorney general nominee, Loretta Lynch, is caught in the crossfire, since Republican leaders decided to hold off her confirmation vote until the situation with the sex trafficking bill is resolved. That might not happen for the better part of a month or more, with senators set to vote on the budget next week before leaving town for a two-week recess.
The stalemate over a bill meant to help some of the most vulnerable members of society is embarrassing and disappointing to all involved. Senators of both parties say they want to break the impasse and move the legislation forward, and negotiations are ongoing.
Yet at least so far, neither side has been moved enough by the plight of tens of thousands of trafficking victims to bend and find an acceptable compromise. The situation illustrates that when it comes to abortion, other considerations can get sidelined as even the most pragmatic lawmakers get pushed into ideological corners with no easy way out.
"The longer these things go, the more entrenched people become," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who has been working with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to try to find a compromise. "Our problem right now is that when things get polarized it's always difficult to put them back together."
The trafficking bill looked primed for quick passage earlier this month, after clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee without opposition. It aims to boost the tools available to law enforcement to go after people involved in sex trafficking, and creates a fund for helping victims that's paid for with criminal fines.
But just as floor debate was to begin, Democrats raised alarms about a provision blocking money in the victims' fund from paying for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother. Similar prohibitions on taxpayer dollars have been included in Congress' annual spending bills for decades, but Democrats said they couldn't agree to extend them to a new pot of money.
They also complained that the abortion funding prohibition in existing law, called the Hyde amendment, must be renewed annually, whereas the restriction on the victims' fund would last five years. Democrats claimed that they had not known about the abortion provision and accused Republicans of sneaking it in, even though the language had been in the bill since it was introduced in January, and one Democratic senator's office did concede an aide was aware of it.
Abortion rights groups like Planned Parenthood and National Organization for Women jumped in, pressuring Democrats not to yield, and the issue quickly became personal for some. In a remarkable exchange on the Senate floor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., related her own personal history on a prison board sentencing providers before abortion became legal and encountering victims of back-alley abortions.
Feinstein told Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the lead GOP sponsor, that women have lost too many fights over abortion and would not back down.
"It is our reproductive system. In a sense this has been a battle for our identity," Feinstein said. "There are many of us who believe this is one small step for womankind."
In the wake of that exchange, Cornyn, too, started sounding unwilling to budge. He proposed routing the victims' fund through Congress' regular annual appropriations process, but maintained language specifically referencing an abortion exception, and Democrats refused.
Heitkamp and Collins offered a similar proposal, but their amendment dropped the abortion reference, and Cornyn said no. He told reporters that, Democrats "now having made this the focal point," he was unwilling to give in.
"By striking any reference to the Hyde provisions it looks like we are not maintaining the status quo, it looks like it's an erosion," Cornyn said late Thursday of the Heitkamp-Collins plan. "People like Sen. Feinstein, I think she would tell you she would consider that a victory."
On Friday, lawmakers and aides involved were still looking for solutions, but it was uncertain if they'd succeed. And at the same time, abortion was beginning to look like an obstacle to a deal on an unrelated issue — changing how Medicare reimburses doctors — as Democratic senators raised concerns that a tentative House agreement would write restrictions on abortions at community health centers into law.
In January, the issue showed it could complicate even internal GOP politics as objections from female and more centrist GOP House members forced House leaders to pull a bill criminalizing virtually all late-term abortions. Together, they're just the latest skirmishes in an ongoing battle that almost sunk Obama's health care law and has reared up time and again to complicate one debate after another.
"In my years in the Senate, very few issues have been more politically charged and or emotional than abortion-related debates," said Jim Manley, a former longtime staffer for Democratic leader Harry Reid and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. "It's very intense."