Senators announced a compromise Tuesday that would move two long-stalled legislative items: a human trafficking bill that has been embroiled in a fight over abortion restrictions, and the confirmation of Loretta Lynch to be the nation’s first Black female attorney general.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had refused to bring Lynch’s confirmation up for a vote until the Senate passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA), despite Lynch’s undisputed qualifications and strong record on prosecuting human traffickers. The tactic enraged advocates and Black leaders, some of whom staged a hunger strike in protest.
McConnell said Tuesday that once the JVTA is passed, the Senate will move on to Lynch “in the next day or so.”
The compromise on the trafficking bill was a limited victory for pro-choice advocates. It stopped Republican efforts to expand the reach of the anti-choice Hyde Amendment, but it will have the effect of restricting abortion services for underage victims of sex trafficking.
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“This bill, and the deal reached, are a perfect example of why the so-called Hyde Amendment is bad policy and harmful to women,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement. “Because of the Hyde Amendment, this bill still denies the most vulnerable women necessary access to vital health services.”
Hogue noted that up to 80 percent of trafficking victims end up pregnant, often multiple times, and called it “abhorrent” that Republicans picked a fight over denying these survivors the full range of health care.
The JVTA’s lead sponsor, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), has argued that the Hyde Amendment’s rape exception will cover underage trafficking victims who want abortion services. But research shows that this exception functions poorly in practice, with more than half of women not receiving reimbursements for eligible abortions.
The Hyde Amendment prohibits federal funding for abortion care except in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. The original trafficking bill mandated an unprecedented expansion of the Hyde Amendment to include private funds, which pro-choice Democrats refused to allow.
“We’re encouraged that members of the Senate understood the alarming consequences of adding these restrictions to the JVTA and fought against them,” said Jessica González-Rojas, executive director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.
The compromise splits funding for victims’ services into two parts. A fine collected from convicted sex traffickers would no longer pay for any health-care services, instead going to things like law enforcement and legal aid for survivors. The health care needs of survivors will be paid for with community health center funds, which recently passed as part of a Medicare reform bill and are already prevented by Hyde from covering abortion services or referrals.
“We started this fight against a bill that applied Hyde to non-taxpayer dollars for the first time, and brought in no real money for trafficking survivors,” a Senate Democratic aide said. “We’re now in a much better place.”
Critics of the JVTA have pointed out that the fine on sex traffickers was unlikely to raise enough money to meaningfully help victims, that most of the money would go to unproven and possibly harmful law enforcement expansions, and that there are potential civil rights problems with the bill’s expanded definition of who can be prosecuted as a sex trafficker.
“Ultimately, this is not a win,” Kate D’Adamo, national policy advocate at the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project, told Rewire. “The strongest precedent that is set by the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act is not about Hyde or Senate confirmations. The strongest precedent is that, in the end, Congress would rather support the expansion of law enforcement than for survivors to get the services they direly need.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) proposed the compromise, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) brokered the deal with Cornyn.
“No compromise is perfect,” Murray said Tuesday. “I believe there is more we can and must do when it comes to strengthening women’s access to quality health care.”
Klobuchar said Tuesday that her own trafficking bill, an effort to protect underage trafficking victims from being prosecuted for prostitution, will be attached as an amendment to the new JVTA.
Both anti-choice Republicans and pro-choice advocates declared victory for their side in the legislative compromise.
“The Hyde Amendment language stays in the anti-trafficking bill,” McConnell’s press office tweeted Tuesday.
“Today’s agreement prevents Hyde from being extended even further into other funding streams, and provides survivors of human trafficking with immediate access to needed health care services,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement.