A diverse collective of anti-trafficking advocates is getting its first dose of Washington's hyperpartisan bickering, and it's trying hard not to be sucked in.
As a human-trafficking bill has descended into a debate about abortion in the Senate, a wide array of evangelical groups and left-leaning advocacy organizations who would traditionally be on opposite sides of the debate remain unsplintered.
By now, the more than 200 groups fighting to end sex trafficking had expected to be celebrating the passage of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, bipartisan legislation that reallocates fines raised by prosecuting pimps and traffickers, and funnels them into a fund for the victims.
But the bill hit a snag last week when Democrats discovered that Republicans included the Hyde Amendment in the legislation, a rider that bans federal funds from paying for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Democrats say Republicans did not tell them that the change had been made before it was voted out of committee. But Republicans say that the controversial amendment was clearly spelled out for Democrats on the fourth page of the bill.
Democrats now are demanding the language be stripped out, and Republicans—desperate to avoid caving to Democrats once again in their new majority—are not budging, with Republican leadership insisting that the Senate won't move forward on Loretta Lynch's confirmation as attorney general until the fight over the bill is resolved.
But as an abortion fight threatens the trafficking legislation on Capitol Hill, it is bringing many advocates for the legislation closer together.
"I think we are really showing our best colors right now," says Samantha Vardaman, the senior director at Shared Hope International, a Christian-based group that works to eradicate sex trafficking. "This is the first time we have encountered politics within our issue area."
While Vardaman says her group doesn't have a problem with the Hyde Amendment language especially because it includes exceptions for rape—which she says covers human trafficking victims—she says so far it has not led to an unraveling of the delicately-built coalition.
That is surprising considering the broad array of supporters behind the trafficking bill, including liberals and evangelicals—groups who often are diametrically opposed on abortion.
When asked if they preferred the bill with or without the Hyde Amendment language, many groups carefully danced around the question, saying simply that they prefer a bill that aids victims of sex trafficking.
"We are hoping that victims of human trafficking are not going to be used as political footballs when we know how devastated their lives are at the hands of traffickers and pimps," says Taina Bien-Aime, the executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, a nonprofit that works to end the sexual exploitation of women and girls, adding later that women deserve to have access to a wide range of medical services.
While there are plenty of advocates like the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women and the Polaris Project that would have preferred the Hyde amendment language had not turned the debate upside down, the shared priority remains to get the trafficking legislation onto the Senate floor and passed as soon as possible. On Monday, more than 80 groups signed a letter to Congress urging them to "turn away from the divisive debate."
Groups are still hopeful that the Hyde Amendment differences can be worked out and that the bill won't be entangled in a heated fight over abortion politics and derailed for good.
"The [bill] includes critical provisions that expand services for survivors and strengthen the criminal justice system's ability to combat human trafficking. The bipartisan support to address modern slavery should not be held up by a separate debate on partisan issues," Brandon Bouchard, a spokesman for the Polaris Project, said in an emailed statement.