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Senate approves human trafficking bill; clears path for vote on attorney general nomination

human trafficking
FBI website

UPDATED 2:30 p.m. April 23 with Lynch confirmation - Even if it becomes law, the human trafficking bill the Senate approved Wednesday may be remembered most as a historical footnote in a fight that involves abortion issues and Loretta Lynch's nomination.Lynch, who would be the first African American woman attorney general, has faced the longest confirmation delay since the 1980s. The Senate is finally scheduled to vote on her nomination Thursday. She was confirmed 56 to 43, with 10 Republicans voting for her.

Several weeks ago, the House passed legislation sponsored by Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, making it a crime to advertise sexual services when individuals are forced into such work. That measure easily cleared the House with bi-partisan approval.

The Senate version of that bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., has the same objective and was added to the main human trafficking legislation as an amendment. The Senate version would limit a victim's access to abortion, and that's where the problem arose. The solution was to create two funding streams for services.

Kirk has long supported legislation such as what has passed, arguing that trafficking victims are slaves. When asked for the significance of the measure’s passage in the Senate, he drew a quick comparison to Abraham Lincoln’s effort to free the slaves during the Civil War. “We reaffirmed the abolitionist core of the Republican Party. That we are the pro-freedom party.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., also praised passage of the bill and said the compromise showed that the Republican leadership in the Senate can reach bipartisan agreements on the most contentious of issues. “We must do everything possible to combat human trafficking and protect the thousands of innocent victims of this modern-day slavery that exists in our own backyard,” Blunt added. "After weeks of delay, I'm pleased to see bipartisanship at work in the Senate with the passage of this common-sense bill that will target human traffickers and provide critical help for trafficking victims."

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also praised passage of the trafficking bill. “There are few crimes as insidious as human trafficking. This bill will help the victims reclaim and rebuild their lives.”

The Lynch connection

The human trafficking bill and the confirmation of Lynch had nothing to do with each other until Republicans tried to expand the scope of federal restrictions on abortion funding by applying the 39-year-old Hyde Amendmentto the fees and fines to be collected from individuals and entities convicted of violating the human trafficking law. The Hyde Amendment’s ban on spending for abortion applies only to federally appropriated funds, not monies collected through other means.

The abortion funding language was not in the House bill, but was added, Democrats say without their knowledge, to the Senate bill. Once Democrats discovered the language, they moved to keep the trafficking bill from coming up for a vote. Republicans control 54 seats, but it takes 60 votes to overcome procedural moves to block a bill from being considered – something Senate Democrats did five times over the last several weeks.

Frustrated with the impasse, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced that Lynch’s confirmation vote would not take place until Democrats allowed a vote on the trafficking bill.

On Tuesday, the two sides reached a compromise. 

Durbin described the compromise as dividing the aid for victims into two. “The one approach would use the fines, but would not be subject to any kind of restrictive language when it came to abortion. The second channeled the medical assistance to the victims through the community health centers, which are already subject by executive order and appropriation riders to the Hyde Amendment.”

Trafficking victims and rape

The Hyde Amendment allows federal funds to be used for abortions when pregnancy results from rape. Lawmakers in both parties have described trafficking victims as being “coerced” into sex work. That distinction prompted some to wonder whether each sexual encounter victims were subjected to could be considered a rape, thereby exempting any abortions from Hyde Amendment provisions. 

Asked about that on Tuesday, Durbin said such a definition is not universal in all jurisdictions. “It’s sad to report, but still in some jurisdictions the victims are being treated as criminals and accused of prostitution and that kind of conduct. … Luckily that is changing.” Durbin says trafficking victims are being “kidnapped and forced and coerced into these relationships – it is not a consensual relationship,” Durbin added. “The simple question of 'Well, aren’t they all rape victims’ – the obvious answer is, I think they are, but every legal jurisdiction doesn’t come to the same conclusion.” 

If the House approves the Senate version of the human trafficking bill, the measure will go to the president.