Politics & Policy

The Senate’s Trafficking Jam

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Vermont senator Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, is having a hard time toeing the party line.

A human-trafficking bill which passed unanimously out of the committee just a few weeks ago is now being held up by Leahy’s fellow Democrats, who claim they didn’t know that the legislation contained Hyde amendment language banning federal funding for abortion.

Yet when asked whether he or his staff read the human-trafficking legislation before he voted for it in committee, Leahy refuses to answer.

“This is getting into almost a crazy world,” Leahy says, before faulting Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) for refusing to hold a vote confirming Loretta Lynch as attorney general until after Democrats relent on the human-trafficking bill. “We hold up the best nominee we’ve had in years for attorney general. She’s had to wait longer than all of the four men who were nominated before her and certainly nobody could suggest any of them are more qualified than she.”

Asked again if he or his staff read the bill beforehand, Leahy stays silent, and hurriedly seeks the shelter of a private hallway.

#related#Leahy’s refusal to say that his team didn’t understand a bill that he voted for – it must be a particularly painful position for a man who served as a competent chairman of the Judiciary Committee when Democrats controlled the Senate – demonstrates the discomfort that Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) has caused within his caucus. McConnell, on the other hand, is on solid ground with his own troops. It’s easy to hit Democrats for blocking human-trafficking legislation, and most of the GOP conference won’t mind holding up Lynch’s nomination, which they overwhelmingly opposed in the first place. The fight thus comes down to whether Democrats tire of voting against a bill that helps modern slaves before Republicans flinch from accusations of racism.

The Judiciary Committee that unanimously approved the human-trafficking bill is populated by Reid’s top lieutenants, Senators Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) and Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), and the degree to which the three senators are running this fight from the top is a surprise even to veteran GOP aides.

“Reid has something that he can do that Mitch McConnell can’t to his side, and, I’m not sure that we would want to be like them,” one Senate GOP aide says. “There is literally no way Republicans would filibuster a bill they were cosponsoring.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) can’t like it any more than Leahy does. After days of Judiciary Committee Democrats claiming they didn’t know that the victims’ fund created by the human-trafficking bill was subject to the Hyde Amendment, Klobuchar’s team admitted to the Associated Press they “had seen the language” before she voted for it but didn’t think it warranted flagging. That would tend to corroborate the GOP contention that this language is a routine provision. (Durbin, for his part, told NR that his staff had read the language, but didn’t understand it.)

In blocking the bill, Democrats are making a distinction between tax dollars collected by the government and money collected through other means, in order to conclude that Republicans are trying to set a new precedent by applying the Hyde Amendment language to the trafficking victims’ fund.

“The money at issue in this bill is not taxpayer dollars, it is money collected from sex traffickers,” Leahy said on the Senate floor Thursday. In 2009, though, Reid rallied the votes needed to pass Obamacare by affirming that “current law already forbids federal funds from paying for abortions . . . I believe current law is sufficient.” (In the event, of course, Obamacare did fund abortions.)

Republicans have floated compromises, starting with allowing an opportunity to vote on an amendment that would withdraw the language from the bill. Democrats shot that proposal down, because the sight of a bipartisan majority of senators voting to keep the language would weaken their position. Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas) also proposed routing the fund through the appropriations process, which is the natural home of the Hyde Amendment.

But that, too, was a non-starter for Democrats, who continue to demand total victory. “There’s a compromise possible: Take it out,” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) told reporters Thursday.

Four Democrats broke with their colleagues this week, and Republicans believe that they’ll eventually get the remaining votes needed to break the filibuster. In the meantime, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is targeting five senators – including Reid, one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection — with robocalls to independent women, pointing out that they are filibustering legislation that would address the human-trafficking problem in their home states.

On the merits, McConnell has an easier time keeping his conference together. For one thing, they believe that Democrats are making a disingenuous argument against the human-trafficking bill. For another, McConnell’s decision to delay Lynch’s confirmation vote won’t bother the many Republicans who opposed her nomination to begin with, based on her support for President Obama’s executive amnesty.

“Personally, I’d be perfectly fine if she did not get a vote until she came out and unequivocally stated that she would put the rule of law and the Constitution above any misplaced loyalty to the president,” Senator Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) says.

Still, it’s easy to see why Democratic leadership likes their position, insofar as it allows them to curry favor with their pro-choice base, while at the same time accusing Republicans of racism because of the Lynch delay (to Reid’s delight). That might incline some GOP senators to vote on Lynch, even if they vote no, just to get the accusation out of the headlines.

“Nobody likes to be called a racist, so, in terms of raw politics they’ve opted for a strategy that has some bite to it,” another GOP Senate aide tells NR. “But it’s not very good. I think it’s far less defensible to be filibustering the human-trafficking bill.”

Those are risks that both sides are willing to take, for now. President Obama’s willingness to implement his agenda by executive order means that Reid is unlikely to come under White House pressure to move on to other legislation. And Republicans have their own incentive to dig their heels in: They expect Reid to continue employing this tactic in future debates, and it will only get worse if Democrats win here.

“This is kind of a manhood contest for Harry Reid,” the aide says. “He wants to force McConnell from the minority to alter a bill that he put on the floor, and McConnell is not going to do it, because he is not going to let Harry Reid dictate what we do here.”

Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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