Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps
March 18, 2015
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Sex-trafficking bill: When partisan politics happens to bipartisan bills

Undone by the most divisive of political issues

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Passing a bill is nearly impossible in this era of intense partisanship on Capitol Hill. Only a week ago a sex-trafficking bill appeared headed to beat the odds and pass with strong bipartisan support. Then politics happened.

Human trafficking is one of those rare topics in which groups representing both sides of the political divide support fixing the issue in a similar way. The proposed bill would have imposed higher penalties for those found guilty of trafficking people for sex in the U.S. and authorize the Department of Justice to award grants to develop and improve domestic child-trafficking deterrence programs.

Organizations such as the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and gay rights proponent Human Rights Campaign were two of 80 groups that signed a letter urging passage of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. The key to the bill’s success lay in the fact that it avoided divisive political language – or at least it did originally — and focused on one solid goal: supporting survivors of human trafficking. That being the case, it was more than ironic that what ultimately led to its undoing was one of the most politically divisive topics there is.

“It’s kind of surprising that even something as bipartisan as the trafficking bill … gets hung up on such a simple thing. It’s shocking,” said David Stacy head of the federal policy team at the Human Rights Campaign.

The simple thing he’s referring to is an abortion clause —  either slipped in at the last minute by Republicans or overlooked from the beginning by Democrats — that stated that no federal funds granted in the trafficking bill could go towards providing abortions.

The clause was similar to a Hyde Amendment, a common legislative provision that bars use of government funding for abortions except in cases of incest or rape. To the Democratic leadership in the Senate, it was a big red flag, much too big to overlook. Unable to strip it from the bill last week, they ultimately voted against the legislation, killing it Tuesday. A similar bill—without the Hyde language — had previously passed the House.

Right-leaning groups blamed Democrats for stopping passage of the bill, arguing the abortion language was fairly common. Left- leaning groups lambasted Republicans for sneakily including a provision that would tie the hands of federal officials trying to help sex-trafficking victims. Some groups said the Hyde provision didn’t matter because all instances of pregnancy through sex-trafficking could be considered rape. Other groups claimed the provision was an insult to the victims.

But to the numerous outside groups that worked hard to get the bill to Congress politics-free, seeing “politics as usual” play out was hard to accept.

“We believe that there is a real genuine desire to pass this legislation, it’s extremely disappointing and extremely painful to see what happened last week,” said Melysa Sperber, director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking. “People from opposite sides of the political spectrum came together to try to pass this act.”

Many of the groups blamed congressional leaders on both sides for fueling the political firestorm.

“Clearly both parties made a mistake in handling this bill,” said Stacy at HRC. “Senator Cornyn, R-Texas, (who sponsored the Senate bill) should have known that this [abortion clause] was going to be a red flag for Democrats. And if Democrats were told about it, they weren’t told clearly or loudly, because they missed it. The clear path forward is if they bring a clean bill forward.” But it seems unlikely that new legislation will be introduced anytime soon.

The debate over the bill has held up a vote on President Obama’s attorney general nominee, Loretta Lynch. Her wait time has been longer than that of the five previous nominees for the office combined. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, has vowed to stop the nomination from coming up for a vote until the human trafficking bill passes— an act that has garnered support from fellow Republicans.

“I’m grateful to the majority leader … for saying we’re going to come back and vote again and again and again on this human-trafficking bill until it passes,” Cornyn said Tuesday on the floor. “And he’s not going to schedule the nomination confirmation vote on the next attorney general until such time as we get this passed.”