Mitch McConnell has caught Democrats between a rock and an abortion rider.
After weeks of Democrats questioning his unwillingness to schedule the nomination of Loretta Lynch to be attorney general, the Senate majority leader announced at a press conference Tuesday that the Senate will vote to confirm her next week. There's just one catch: Members will have to get past legislation that includes a controversial abortion rider first.
"This is bad," Jessica Brady, a spokeswoman for Judiciary Committee Democrats, said Tuesday.
Not long after agreeing unanimously to move forward with a bill to combat human trafficking on Monday, Democrats discovered the abortion language that had been sitting near the start of the bill. They're now refusing to allow Republicans a final vote on the bill, potentially carrying out a filibuster that could last well into next week.
To get their vote on Lynch, Democrats will have to get off of the trafficking bill. And, so far, Republicans aren't showing any willingness to remove the controversial abortion language.
Democrats are furious that McConnell's top deputy, Republican Whip John Cornyn, snuck—in their telling—a provision into a bipartisan human-trafficking bill that would prevent any of the funds reserved for trafficking victims from being used on abortions or Plan B contracepton (known as the morning-after pill).
Cornyn argued Tuesday that the legislation including the abortion language was posted publicly on Jan. 13. It earned a dozen Democratic cosponsors and passed the Judiciary Committee unanimously without a single Democratic member or aide flagging the abortion language.
It was on page four.
Democrats discovered the problem Monday night, sending staffers and members into a frenzy. The abortion language was not included in a list of changes made to last year's trafficking bill sent to Democrats by Republican staffers, Sens. Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin said Tuesday. As a result, the language went unnoticed.
Cornyn dismissed Democratic claims that he and other Republicans had surreptitiously included the language in the bill, calling claims that members were unaware of the abortion language "simply untrue."
"That presupposes that "¦ nobody read a 68-page bill. And that senators would vote for a bill, much less cosponsor it, without reading it," Cornyn said.
The Cornyn language would subject the new human-trafficking victims funding, paid for through fines collected from traffickers, to abortion restrictions prescribed by the Hyde amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortions. The amendment is typically attached only to apropriations measures, not authorizing bills such as this one. Essentially, Republicans are defining the fees collected in the trafficking bill as "federal funds" and then applying the Hyde amendment in what Democrats argue is a massive expansion of the amendment's intended use.
As a result, Democrats plan to filibuster the human-trafficking bill even after Reid said Monday night—before the party noticed the abortion language—he would work hard to clear any problems and move the legislation forward.
"Let me be very clear: This bill will not be used as an opportunity for Republicans to double down on their efforts to restrict a woman's health care choices," Sen. Patty Murray, the No. 4 Democratic leader, told reporters Tuesday. "I know there are a whole lot of us who are going to fight hard against any attempt to expand the Hyde amendment and permanently impact women's health. Republicans know that too. So, I really hope that they now choose to do the right thing and work with us on a path forward to resolve this issue and pass this bill without hurting women."
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.
But that filibuster could delay the Senate's ability to consider Lynch's nomination, which Democrats have spent months calling for. McConnell could easily bypass the trafficking legislation and bring Lynch up next week anyway, as he said he would Tuesday. But with strong GOP support for the trafficking bill, including from the leader, it's unclear if Republicans will back down to a Democratic filibuster.
Democrats are confident that any move to further delay the nomination of a qualified African-American woman to head the Justice Department would only hurt Republicans, Minority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman Adam Jentleson said Tuesday. Even if that delay follows a Democratic filibuster to combat human trafficking.