Just weeks ago it finally looked like Republicans and Democrats had found an issue they could agree on. The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, a bill that would expand resources for law enforcement to combat sex trafficking, enhance services for victims and increase penalties for perpetrators, sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee by a unanimous vote. Nearly everyone was singing the bill’s praises.
“It’s evidence that Congress can set aside partisan differences and work together to get things done for the American people,” Judiciary committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said. “Working together, we can stop criminal depravity and restore dignity to survivors. With passage of bipartisan legislation, we can bring justice to moral injustice and criminal mistreatment of our fellow human beings.”
“This bipartisan bill will help crack down on traffickers while also helping ensure victims have the critical support they need,” added Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
The next stop for the bill was the Senate floor, which appeared little more than a formality, just another stop on the way to the president’s desk. And then something odd happened, odd even by the standards of Washington – Democrats claimed to suddenly discover Hyde Amendment language in the bill.
The Hyde Amendment is not some arcane, insiders-only mumbo-jumbo; it’s legislative language, inserted in almost all spending legislation, barring the use of federal funds for abortion except in the cases of rape, incent and a threat to the life of the mother. The language is so common that it’s even included in the Affordable Care Act.
Immediately, questions began to arise about what Democrats were up to. After all, the idea that Democrats would suddenly object to oft-passed language that could be found on page 4 of the bill seemed ridiculous. After all, the bill text was made public in January and passed unanimously through the Judiciary Committee. And did they suddenly forget that fifty-five of them voted in support of the Hyde language when it was in the omnibus spending bill last year? What on earth are they doing?
““That leads me to believe that some of the suggestions being made now — that there were provisions in the legislation that people didn’t know about — are simply untrue,” Sen. John Cornyn, the chief sponsor of the bill, said in a press conference.. “That presupposes that none of their staff briefed the senators on what was in the legislation, that nobody read a 68-page bill and that senators would vote for a bill, much less co-sponsor it, without reading it and knowing what’s in it,” he said. “None of that strikes me as plausible.”
What is plausible is that Democrats identified a political opportunity and grabbed on to it with two hands. They’re not even really hiding it. As Sarah Mimms reported for the National Journal: “Any chance for Democrats to speak on the floor in favor of abortion rights, particularly for trafficking victims, is good for them, Democratic staffers argue”
If that’s true, it’s sad. This legislation is supposed to be good for the victims of sex trafficking, not for the political prospects of Democrats. Shouldn’t legislation to end sex trafficking and provide some monetary help to its victims be above these sorts of political squabbles? The answer is yes, which makes this all the more tragic.
Sen. Mitch McConnell even offered to hold a Senate vote to strip out the anti-abortion language from the stalled bill. But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid rejected the compromise out of hand, saying, “The way to handle the issue is very simple: just take it out of the bill.”
Actually, the way to handle it is to stop playing political games over an issue as bipartisan and important as human trafficking. Democrats knew the language was in there, just as it is in nearly all spending bills. They just didn’t care until they saw a political opportunity.