WASHINGTON – Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s long-fought measure to combat human trafficking finally started to look like it had a shot of making it to President Obama’s desk this year.
That all blew up this week over an unrelated issue: federal cash for abortion.
Democrats, including Klobuchar and Sen. Al Franken, say that Republicans sneaked a provision in the 68-page bill that would prevent funds reserved for trafficking victims from being used on morning-after pills or abortions.
Suddenly a measure with strong bipartisan support became tinged with high-stakes abortion politics.
The language was so vague that it sailed by dozens of staffers working for at least 12 Democratic senators as well as the minority staffers at the Judiciary Committee, where the trafficking bill passed unanimously in January.
At the time, the measure included the support from Minnesota’s two U.S. senators — both of whom said Thursday they didn’t know the language was in there and are not interested in voting for it again on the Senate floor with the abortion language.
“Rather than go back and forth on all this … I think we need to put the focus back on trafficking and find some way to fix it,” Klobuchar said.
Franken said he regretted his January vote.
“I do not support any legislation that would jeopardize women’s health and rights,” Franken said. “The Republican author of the legislation slipped language into the bill. … This is something I’ve never encountered before and it’s unacceptable. That said, I should have caught this change to the bill and I regret voting for it.”
Both the House and the Senate measures offer enhanced community policing funding for states that enforce the act, and victims would be able to take advantage of free education and training programs. The Senate’s bill brings together federal, state and local efforts to fight sex trafficking.
The House versions, carried by U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minnesota, did not include the abortion language.
Paulsen, who is back in Minnesota during a House recess, called the Senate stalemate disappointing Thursday.
Paulsen supports restricting federal funds for abortions and the morning-after pill, but said that language has no place in the Senate bill.
“There is no reason it should be included in these bills. This issue is far too important to tie it up with an unrelated fight with politics as usual,” he said. “To me, this is about saving lives.”
Senate Republicans, though, say Democrats are the ones holding up important legislation because of politics.
Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who has become a major ally of Klobuchar’s throughout the process, emotionally described how important sex trafficking legislation was and questioned the Senate Democrats’ timing of their objections. Similar abortion wording was included in a spending bill last year supported by many Democrats.
“Why in the world would they find this objectionable now?” he said.
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who authored the original piece of Senate legislation, said he “didn’t believe” Senate Democrats failed to read the legislation.
“I don’t believe their staffs didn’t catch this,” he said.
A vote is scheduled for early next week on the current measure, including the abortion funding language, but staffers said they will continue to work on a compromise over the weekend. Anti sex-trafficking advocacy groups were leaning on Senate Republicans to drop the language immediately.
“We urge all members of the Senate to turn away from this divisive debate and find a bipartisan approach to this new initiative to protect and serve the needs of the survivors,” the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking said.
Though many Democrats on Thursday said they felt jilted by their Republican colleagues, Klobuchar said she remained hopeful for a compromise.
“I think we need to put the focus back on trafficking and find some way to fix it,” she said. “There are bigger politics taking over right now but that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.”
Staff writer Jim Spencer contributed to this story.