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The Senate has reached a deal on its bill to combat human trafficking

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

  1. After weeks of dysfunction and controversy, the Senate has reached a bipartisan deal on a bill that toughens penalties for sex trafficking and helps trafficking victims.
  2. The bill is mostly unchanged from weeks ago. Abortion coverage would not be included in health services the government provides to victims of human trafficking, except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother's life.
  3. However, these health services are now funded by traditionally appropriated government funds. Previously, they were funded by a new pot of money from criminal fines on traffickers.

What the anti-trafficking bill actually does

The Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act long seemed set for easy passage — who would want to vote against a bill cracking down on sex traffickers? But controversy over one provision of the bill blocking federal funding for abortions held things up — and blocked Senate business, including a confirmation vote for attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch, for weeks.

The bill is designed to improve US enforcement of anti-trafficking laws, more strongly penalize offenders, and help the victims of trafficking crimes. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill would:

  • Create a fine of $5,000 for people convicted of offenses related to trafficking or sexual abuse
  • Put those fines into a new Domestic Trafficking Victim's Fund, to be spent by DOJ on programs helping trafficking victims
  • Let lawful permanent resident victims of "severe forms of trafficking" be eligible for federal benefits (food stamps and Supplemental Security Income) more quickly
  • Require DOJ to better train enforcement officers and prosecutors working on trafficking
  • Create an annual DOJ report on how states are enforcing sex-trafficking laws

But there's one more thing: that new fund for trafficking victims? None of its money can be spent on abortion or health coverage that includes abortion services, except in cases of rape, incest, or risk to the life of the mother. And a controversy over this derailed the effort for weeks.

How a controversy over abortion sidetracked the bill

Watch Jon Stewart's take on the controversy above.

Republicans maintained that the abortion provision was perfectly ordinary. They argued it simply reflects the existing Hyde Amendment, versions of which have regularly been attached to yearly appropriations bills for decades. The Hyde Amendment blocks federal funds from being used for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother's life.

But most Democrats say they were unaware the provision was even in this year's version of the anti-trafficking bill. Democrats initially said the GOP "pulled a fast one" on them, but a staffer's mistake seems to have been at fault. A spokesperson for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) eventually admitted that one of her aides was aware of the new provision but "did not inform the senator."

Whatever the reason, in February the bill sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously, and seemed headed for likely passage. But by mid-March, pro-choice groups finally noticed the provision and began raising an outcry. Nearly all Democrats took up their banner, successfully voting five times since March 17 to filibuster the bill.

Democrats and pro-choice groups argued that abortion access for trafficking victims was particularly important considering the sexual nature of many of these crimes. "The majority of human trafficking victims are women and girls, and they need access to the full range of reproductive health care services without barriers," Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards said in a statement.

Democrats also argued that since the anti-trafficking bill isn't an appropriations bill, it would in fact be an expansion of how the Hyde Amendment has traditionally been adopted — it would be applied to a new pot of money (the fines on trafficking criminals) rather than traditional federal appropriations (which are funded mainly through taxpayer dollars). They also complained that the Hyde language would apply to this program for five years, rather than having to be renewed every year, as is currently the custom for appropriations bills.

So for weeks, both sides were in a standoff. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said that removing the Hyde language "looks like we are not maintaining the status quo; it looks like it's an erosion." Democrats are similarly reluctant to cave. "Over the years, we have lost virtually every battle that has been on this floor, and we are tired of it. So we are taking a stand, and we are going to hold that stand," Sen. Feinstein said. "Once advocates on both sides became actively engaged in this, it is difficult for either side to make a change," Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told Susan Milligan of US News & World Report.

A face-saving compromise

Functionally, the final deal gives Republicans what they want, and includes the Hyde Amendment language for health services for trafficking victims. But it does so in a way that lets Democrats claim victory in one area — it uses existing appropriated funds to pay for these health services, rather than new money coming from criminal fines. A contrast between the two versions shows what's changed:

  • The bill initially approved in committee: A new fund for human trafficking victims is created, funded by $5,000 criminal fines on traffickers, and covering health services and legal services. The Hyde language applies to it, and would block its money from being used for abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother's life).
  • The final compromise deal: A new fund for human trafficking victims is created. It is funded partly by $5,000 criminal fines on traffickers, but this money can only be used to provide legal services. A separate funding stream will come from money already appropriated by Congress. This can cover health services, and the Hyde language will apply to it.

So, practically, the bill will not let trafficking victims have access to federally funded abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother). But Democrats get to claim that they prevented the GOP from "expanding" the Hyde precedent.

Overall, despite the changeover to Republican leadership, it's clear that the upper chamber remains intensely polarized and dysfunctional, unable to get seemingly uncontroversial things done without great effort. This one controversy, though, has been resolved — for now.