The standoff over an anti-human trafficking bill that is now threatening the confirmation of Loretta Lynch to be the new attorney general showed no signs of abating Tuesday.
Senate Democrats blocked getting to a vote on an anti-human trafficking bill Tuesday after objecting to restrictions on funding for abortions. Democrats said Republicans put it in the bill without their knowledge.
The vote was 55 to 43, but needed 60 votes to pass. Four Democrats crossed party lines and voted with Republicans.
Partisan tensions rose in the days after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told CNN he would not schedule a vote for Lynch until an otherwise bipartisan human trafficking bill – stalled over an abortion provision opposed by most Democrats – passes the chamber. The delay may mean the Senate runs out of time to consider Lynch’s nomination ahead of the two-week Easter recess, so she may not get a vote before mid-April.
The 159-day delay for a vote since Obama nominated her is the longest since 1985 when the Senate took more than a year to confirm President Ronald Reagan’s nominee Edwin Meese, according to Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
McConnell is expected to keep the bill on the floor for at least the rest of this week and try to build public and political pressure on Democrats to drop their objections to the abortion language.
The impasse comes at a time when Republicans in Congress are trying to show it can govern effectively after struggling last month to pass a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security.
In unusually harsh terms, White House spokesman Josh Earnest blasted McConnell’s treatment of Lynch on Monday, calling the delayed vote “unconscionable” and saying his handling of the human trafficking legislation was a sign of “inept leadership.”
“There’s not a single legitimate question that has been raised about her aptitude for this job,” Earnest said at the White House briefing Monday. “Instead, all we’ve seen is a bunch of political obstruction from Republicans that, again, does not – does not speak well of Republicans’ efforts to run the Senate in an effective fashion.”
Even likely Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton weighed in, saying in a pair of tweets: “Congressional trifecta against women today: 1) Blocking great nominee, 1st African American woman AG, for longer than any AG in 30 years……2) Playing politics with trafficking victims… 3) Threatening women’s health & rights.”
Senate GOP leaders defended their actions and put the blame on Democrats for pulling their support for the bill after initially embracing it.
“There is no excuse for not passing this legislation,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican. “All the excuses are phony excuses and the question is Sen. Reid and the willful Senate minority going to basically run this place after their leadership was rejected on November the fourth last year?”
Democrats accuse Republicans of sneaking language into the human trafficking bill to prevent women from using restitution funds paid by perpetrators to get an abortion.
“The human trafficking and child pornography bill before the Senate has wide bipartisan support,” said Reid. “Unfortunately, it also includes a previously unreported abortion provision that has stopped this bill in its tracks. But there is a quick and easy solution to this dilemma: take the abortion language out of the bill.”
Democrats also charge Republicans with slow-walking Lynch’s nomination and are frustrated McConnell is insisting on passage of the human trafficking bill, including the controversial abortion provision, as the price for her confirmation.
“I honestly can’t believe they would do that unfair, unjust thing to this good woman. They don’t have a thing to complain about other than she is Barack Obama’s nominee,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “It’s a cruel strategy when it comes to an extraordinarily qualified nominee.”
Republicans hope that in the days ahead public and political pressure will grow and enough Democrats will vote to clear the human trafficking bill despite the abortion language. If the bill is not cleared by next Monday, McConnell is expected to turn to a debate on the annual budget resolution. Once that is completed, the Senate will leave for a two-week recess.
If and when Lynch is scheduled for a vote – and it’s looking likely she won’t be until mid-April at the earliest – she is expected to be confirmed but only with a handful of Republican votes. As of now, GOP senators Orrin Hatch of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona publicly support Lynch.