Missed Abortion Language Tangles Senate's Trafficking Bill

Mar 16, 2015
Originally published on March 16, 2015 8:01 pm

A once widely supported Senate bill that would create a fund for human trafficking victims has hit a snag over language Democrats say they didn't know was in the bill — a provision that would bar funds collected under the measure from being used to pay for abortions. And the impasse over that language now threatens to delay other Senate business, like confirming a new attorney general.

The bill would create a "Domestic Trafficking Victims' Fund" — a restitution fund for victims collected through fines on people convicted of trafficking crimes. The measure was unanimously approved by the Judiciary Committee last month, and it was one of those few bills expected to glide seamlessly through the Senate this year with wide bipartisan support.

Republicans point out that the abortion language was in the bill since mid-January when the bill was introduced. But Democrats say the other side never brought the language to their attention when they specifically asked for a summary of changes between this bill and last year's version.

And on top of that, Democrats point out, the abortion language isn't that obvious if you actually read the bill. What this bill says, on pages 50-51, is that the victims' fund is to be subject to all the limitations on funds, as detailed in last December's spending bill:

So then you have to go to Page 405, Section 507 of last December's appropriations bill to find the language:

To be sure, even Democratic staffers say they should have caught the language. But they contend it's a stretch to argue the abortion provision was, as Republican Sen. John Cornyn put it, "as plain as the nose on your face."

The provision at issue is called the Hyde Amendment. It bars taxpayer money from being used for abortions — except in cases of rape or incest, or if the mother's life is at risk. Republican senators point out it's already been the law of the land for years. But Democrats say what's different in this case is that the Hyde Amendment is now reaching legislation that isn't an appropriations bill. The victims' fund that would be created under the legislation is not simply "taxpayers' money." It is money collected from people who've broken the law.

While this standoff persists, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he won't let the chamber vote on Loretta Lynch — the nominee to become the next attorney general — until the Senate passes this human trafficking bill.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We begin this hour with politics. First, to Capitol Hill, where a Senate bill that would create a fund for human trafficking victims has hit a snag. The legislation had expansive bipartisan support until Democrats discovered that one of its provisions would bar funds from being used to pay for abortions. The impasse over that language now threatens to delay other Senate business, including the confirmation of a new attorney general. And with us now to talk about the stalemate is NPR's congressional correspondent, Ailsa Chang. Ailsa, first tell us briefly what this anti-trafficking bill would do, apart from the language about abortion.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: The bill's very straightforward. It would create a victims' restitution fund which would be paid for with fines imposed on people convicted of trafficking crimes, such as someone who paid to have sex with children. And it's one of those few bills everyone expected to sail through the Senate with wide bipartisan support. The measure was unanimously approved by the judiciary committee last month, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid helped get it to the floor this month.

BLOCK: And then all of the bipartisan harmony that we were talking about came to a screeching halt a couple of weeks ago over the language that Democrats apparently didn't see in the bill that has to do with abortion.

CHANG: That's right. There was a provision in the bill that would prevent any money in this fund from being used to pay for abortions. Basically, now the conflict is this. Republicans are saying, this language was in the bill since mid-January, since the bill was introduced, so it's your fault, Democrats, for not seeing it this entire time. Democrats are contending, you guys never brought this language to our attention when we specifically asked for a summary of changes between this bill and last year's version. Last year's version did not have the abortion language.

BLOCK: So does this mean Democrats are admitting that they actually didn't read the bill?

CHANG: They are. I mean, this whole fiasco has highlighted a common truth we hear around Capitol Hill, and that is lawmakers seldom read bills from beginning to end. They rely on staffers to distill, summarize, flag issues of concern because many of these bills are really, really long. For instance, last year's spending bill was 1,600 pages long.

Now, of course, this human trafficking bill was only 68 pages. But staffers say the abortion language was not obvious because what this bill actually says is that the victims' fund is subject to all the limitations detailed in last December's spending bill. That's the 1,600 page bill I just mentioned, and it was in that spending bill that you will find the abortion language.

It's a provision called the Hyde Amendment. You see it in a lot of appropriations bills. And what it does is it bars taxpayer money from being used for abortions, except in cases of rape or incest or if the mother's life is at risk. But what Democrats pointed out is that this victims' fund is not taxpayer money. It's fines collected from people who violated the law.

BLOCK: And briefly, Ailsa, now the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, is saying he will not let the chamber vote on Loretta Lynch, the nominee for attorney general, until the Senate passes this bill.

CHANG: That's right. The first vote on the human trafficking bill is tomorrow. It's expected to fail. And even though McConnell had said he wanted the Senate to vote on Lynch this week, if it does fail - this trafficking bill does fail, it may be a while before the Senate will ever get to Lynch.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's congressional correspondent, Ailsa Chang. Ailsa, thanks.

CHANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.