Logjam breaks in Senate: signs of thaw in Congress?

Lawmakers announced a deal Tuesday on a human trafficking bill that has been stalled for weeks. The deal clears the way for a long-delayed vote on Loretta Lynch as US attorney general.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File
Loretta Lynch is sworn in to testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on her nomination to be U.S. attorney general on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this January 28, 2015 file photo. The Senate could vote this week on Lynch's nomination, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said on April 21, ending a month-long partisan impasse on a anti-human trafficking bill that threatened to stall her confirmation indefinitely.

Senate negotiators broke a sizable logjam on Tuesday, as lawmakers announced a deal on a human trafficking bill that has been stalled for weeks over abortion language. The deal clears the way for a long-delayed vote on Loretta Lynch as US attorney general – adding to a growing sense among lawmakers and observers that Congress is slowly starting to function again.

Lawmakers use spring-like metaphors such as an ice break-up to describe a series of bipartisan breakthroughs of recent weeks – on Medicare payments to doctors, congressional review of a potential Iran deal, student testing, and trade. The two parties are also cooperating on cybersecurity.

Observers attribute the thaw to GOP efforts to show they can govern, and to the actions of individual lawmakers who are just as frustrated with the dysfunction of recent years as Americans are. The question, of course, is whether the problem-solving will extend to other areas, such as infrastructure, tax reform, and even immigration.

Speaking of the anti-trafficking deal, Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said on Tuesday, “This compromise is evidence that when Democrats and Republicans sit down together and work toward a solution, good things can happen.”

A similar view was expressed by Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, the Senate majority whip and sponsor of the bipartisan anti-trafficking bill.

“We actually are starting to get some things done. It’s pretty exciting,” he said late last week, then quickly cautioned, “not that the Age of Aquarius has broken out.

Outsiders, too, are noting progress in an institution whose job approval rating is at a basement-level 11 percent. This week, the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank, unveiled its new "Healthy Congress Index,” in which it noted an increase in the number of legislative workdays and a substantial increase in the number of amendments – a critical tool for building consensus and venting partisan steam.

But like lawmakers themselves, the think tank called its findings preliminary, noted room for improvement, and said it was too early to declare the long winter of dysfunction over.

After the midterm elections in November, House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky promised to show that Republicans could govern the newly GOP-controlled Congress. They’ve both encountered turbulence: a drawn-out fight among House Republicans over immigration and funding of the Department of Homeland Security, and the Senate impasse over the bipartisan trafficking bill and Lynch nomination.

But they’ve also had successes. Speaker Boehner directly negotiated with House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California over a long-term solution to the so-called Medicare “doc fix.” Senator McConnell has given rank-and-file senators of both parties a greater voice through floor debate, amendments, and a renewed focus on committees – where bills are hashed out and put together.

“I have to give Senator McConnell credit for changing the tone,” said Tom Daschle, a former Democratic Senate majority leader now with the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Mr. Daschle also credits Senator Reid for holding back on obstruction maneuvers – the long blockade of the trafficking bill notwithstanding (the abortion language went to a core Democratic issue).  

“Everybody sees this as an opportunity,” Daschle says, from Democrats who want to help build the president’s legacy during his last 18 months in office, to Republicans who are eyeing 2016. Plus, agendas for each group are overlapping.

Take the bipartisan trafficking bill, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. The bill is meant to address the fastest growing business of organized crime, where the average person trafficked is a girl aged 12 to 14 years old. It passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in February. But it came to a screeching halt on the Senate floor when Democrats suddenly discovered that Republicans had made a $30 million victims’ fund subject to abortion restrictions under the so-called “Hyde amendment.”

Republicans were furious with Democrats for “not reading the bill” and splitting hairs over the application of Hyde, which for decades has forbidden government spending on abortions except in the cases of rape, incest, and endangering the life of the mother. 

Democrats were equally angry, charging Republicans with sneaking in the language and accusing them of trying to extend the reach of Hyde by applying it to private money – the victims’ fund is financed by fees against trafficking perpetrators, not by taxpayers.

The seeds to a solution sprouted in the cornfields in Minnesota, according to the state’s Democratic senator, Amy Klobuchar. She was driving through the fields near Moorhead at the start of the congressional two-week April recess, when it occurred to her that the victims’ fund could be used only for nonmedical needs, such as shelter for victims and help for law enforcement. That would shield it from the Hyde amendment.

A separate government fund from taxpayer dollars could deal with medical issues, such as mental health services. That fund would still be covered by Hyde, though the amendment wouldn’t apply to most cases because so many state consent laws consider minors victims of rape.

Senator Klobuchar got on her phone and started calling key players, from Reid to Cornyn. No one ever said, “that’s a bad idea,” she told reporters.

Details were worked out by many people, with Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington negotiating the final deal with Cornyn.

The agreement is a win for both sides, with Democrats able to keep the status quo on abortion funding, while Republicans can still say Hyde applies. “I really tried to put myself in his shoes,” she said of Cornyn, with whom she worked closely on this issue. 

Her own amendment, to define people who are trafficked as victims rather than criminals, is expected to pass as part of the bill when it comes up for a vote, expected on Wednesday.

Klobuchar says she was overjoyed that an agreement had been reached on an issue that she has been working on for years. That, too, is a big reason for the stirrings of change. Frustrated senators are just as sick of gridlock as the public. They are seizing opportunities and running with them.

That’s not to say that all are singing in harmony. Democrats are livid that McConnell has held the Lynch vote hostage in order to force a solution on the trafficking bill. That is a highly unusual move, and has kept Ms. Lynch in limbo longer than the last seven attorneys general combined. Reid on Tuesday criticized the Republican leadership as "a complete flop."

Democrats are also fuming over the Republican budget outlines passed by each chamber. And raw feelings still linger over a sudden rule change by Reid in the last Congress, with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R) of Arizona admitting he’s holding up Obama appointees as payback, according to Politico.

Then there are the intra-party fights, among Democrats over trade, for instance, and Republicans over spending.

Still, success has a way of breeding success, and the excitement over accomplishments is palpable on the Hill – even as everyone tries not to get too excited.

“We at least have seen a little of that frost melt,” said Klobuchar. It was an understated remark from a senator with a big smile on her face.

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