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Anti-abortion language prompts Democrats to threaten filibuster against a bipartisan human trafficking bill

Anti-abortion language prompts Democrats to threaten filibuster against a bipartisan human trafficking bill

Senate Democrats are threatening to block bipartisan legislation aimed at helping victims of trafficking and sexual abuse, because they oppose language that would prevent money in the bill from being used to fund abortions.

The Senate started work on the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act this week, after the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved it. But on Tuesday, Democrats suddenly made it clear that they oppose abortion language that has been in the legislation since it was introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is defending his human trafficking bill from Democratic opponents who don't like abortion-related language in the bill. Image: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

That bill sets up a compensation fund for victims of human trafficking, a fund that would be comprised of fines assessed against human traffickers and sexual abusers. The controversial language in question is a provision saying that none of the money from that fund can be used to provide abortion services.

Cornyn said Tuesday that Democrats have long been aware of this language, and none have put up any opposition to it until this week, which made him suspect that Democrats were trying to make a political issue out of legislation that is supported by both parties.

"I don't believe for a minute that they would have missed a reference in this legislation to a restriction on funding taxpayer-provided abortions, and I don't believe that those staff members, being the diligent professionals they are, didn't tell their principal, their member of the Senate Judiciary Committee," Cornyn said. "So this idea that there has been some kind of ambush is preposterous. It is just not credible."

"This language was added last year and by their own admission Senate Democrats were aware of the language before they all unanimously voted to support the bill out of committee," added a Cornyn aide. "To cry foul now is disingenuous and not deserving of these survivors."

Republicans also noted that for nearly four decades, Congress has approved appropriations bills that prevent taxpayer funds from being used to fund abortion. That has been done by regularly passing the so-called Hyde Amendment.

But Democrats say the language is different enough to warrant concern. They note that while appropriations bills have included the limitation on abortion, Cornyn's human trafficking bill would apply that same limitation to a victims compensation fund that made up of fines instead of a direct appropriation from Congress.

Democrats say they're worried that this is an expansion of the abortion limitation, one they want to avoid.

"The new language would expand the Hyde amendment beyond taxpayer funds to apply to other pools of revenue such as the fees collected from perpetrators of human trafficking in the legislation currently being debated," said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "The new language would also make the Hyde language permanent for the first time."

"For these reasons, the precedent set by this new language could lead to a dramatic expansion of abortion restrictions in future years," he added. Reid himself called on Republicans to eliminate the language on Wednesday morning.

As of now, there's no sign the two sides are trying to negotiate a solution to the problem. Republicans have invited Democrats to offer amendments to the bill if they want to change it, but Democratic-sponsored amendments at this point might fail due to GOP opposition.

If so, Democrats could follow on their threat to prevent the bill from moving at all. It would take 60 votes to end debate on the bill and move toward a final vote, which means at least six Democrats would be needed.

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