Loretta Lynch’s long wait appears to be almost over. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday morning that Republicans and Democrats have hammered out a deal on a long-stalled anti-human trafficking bill—legislation that had absolutely nothing to do with the U.S. attorney general nominee until the GOP unexpectedly made its passage a prerequisite to her confirmation.
"I'm glad we can say there is a bipartisan proposal that will allow us to complete action on this important legislation, so we can provide help to the victims who desperately need it," McConnell said on the Senate floor. He added that the bill should clear the way for Lynch’s confirmation vote “hopefully in the next day or so.”
The bill in question increases penalties for pimps and johns involved in human trafficking to pay for a restitution fund for their victims. The general effort had long shared bipartisan support, and the bill itself had been expected to provide a rare reprieve from the usual partisan gridlock that is now regular order on Capitol Hill. That, of course, isn’t what happened. Once Democrats took the time to actually read the bill, they discovered that Republicans had quietly added abortion language that would bar the fund from being used to pay for abortions for the victims, except in cases of rape or incest, or if the life of the woman were in jeopardy.
Congress has been inserting similar language—often known as the Hyde amendment—into annual spending bills for the past four decades. Those annual budget riders, however, weren’t permanent and only concerned taxpayer dollars, not criminal fines like the ones that will pay for the victims’ fund. Making the latest abortion-funding fight particularly convoluted was that it was never clear exactly how directly the Hyde language would have actually impacted human-trafficking victims—most would have presumably still been able to use the fund for an abortion under the rape exemption. Still, conservatives demanded the restriction while liberals warned that it would open the door for conservatives to also expand the ban to other government-collected cash down the road.
The final deal employed a little creative accounting to find a workaround that both parties can live with, via the Associated Press:
The final language, agreed to by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., solves the problem by establishing two sources of money for the new victims' fund. Money collected from the fines assessed on criminal perpetrators would be used for services such as legal aid, but not health or medical services, and therefore language on abortion would not be relevant. Money already appropriated by Congress for Community Health Centers—and already subject to abortion spending restrictions—would be available for health and medical services.
Given the current makeup of the Senate, the deal was probably the best either side could have reasonably expected: Republicans can say the bill won’t make it any easier for women to get an abortion; Democrats can say it won’t make it any more difficult. Remove the politics from the policy and the deal is similarly something of a mixed bag: the legislation should help victims of human trafficking, but the Hyde-amendment status quo will continue to disproportionally impact women of color and the poor.
It remains unclear why the Senate GOP decided the human-trafficking bill was the right vehicle for a largely unrelated fight about abortion, and a completely unrelated one about Lynch. The former wasted the better part of a month, the latter a good deal more. In the end, though, all the political posturing and partisan bickering appears set to ultimately end with a deal that will help victims of human trafficking, and with the confirmation of Lynch. Hey, better late than never.