McConnell vows: no vote on attorney general until abortion flap solved

Mitch McConnell said Sunday that the Senate would not vote on attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch until another bill has been dealt with first. But that bill appears to have hit an impasse over abortion.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky holds a news conference at the United States Capitol in Washington Tuesday. He said Sunday he would not schedule a vote to confirm President Obama's nominee for attorney general, Loretta Lynch, until Democrats stop blocking an unrelated human trafficking bill.

President Obama’s nominee to be the next United States attorney general apparently will have to wait until Senate Democrats and Republicans can figure out abortion.

That could be a long wait.

It’s not that she said something controversial about abortion at confirmation hearings. In fact, the abortion issue has nothing at all to do with Loretta Lynch.

But on Sunday, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said that the Senate would not vote on Ms. Lynch’s confirmation – which is expected to narrowly pass – until the Senate passes a particular bill. And the holdup there is abortion.

What makes this particular bout of gridlock peculiar is that no one appeared to see it coming.

The bill in question actually has nothing to do with abortion, either. It is a bill to create a fund to help victims of human trafficking, and it is a signature piece of legislation. It marks a sea change in how Congress views sexual trafficking, looking at the women involved as victims rather than law-breakers. It was expected to pass easily in a welcome outbreak of bipartisan do-the-right-thingery.

Then the office of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut noticed something in the bill that made all the bipartisanship go poof.

Abortion.

According to the Democrats, Republicans tried to pull a fast one by slipping into the bill a provision that would prevent any of the money from the newly created fund going to abortions. Such a maneuver, Democrats say, would unacceptably expand the Hyde Amendment, which prevents any federal funds from going to abortions, so that it would also cover personal funds paid in fines, like this one.

Republicans, for their part, say the provision has been in the bill since last year and was hardly hidden. Politico noted that earlier in the legislative process, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont offered an amendment to an item on the same page as the abortion provision, but said nothing of the abortion language. Republicans also say that the Hyde Amendment logically applies to this fund.

“They all voted for the very same language in a bill in December,” Senate McConnell said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “This is boilerplate language that has been in the law for almost 40 years that they all voted for three months ago in another bill."

Now, the Senate is deadlocked. Democrats won’t pass the bill with the abortion language in it, and Senator McConnell is now vowing not to move on to the Lynch nomination until the trafficking bill is passed.

“This will have an impact on the timing of considering the new attorney general,” McConnell said Sunday. “I had hoped to turn to her next week. But if we can’t finish the trafficking bill, she will be put off again.”

The difficulty here is that the difference is not one of semantics of political optics.

Republicans’ opposition to using federal funds for abortion are deep-seated. Politico notes that similar Hyde-like language is in federal programs such as the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.  Democrats, meanwhile, feel that Republican-run states, in particular, have been waging a war on abortion, attempting to restrict it to the point that most women will not be able to get an abortion, whether or not the procedure is legal. Giving in here would set a bad precedent.

What is odd is how it got this far. Legislators rarely read through bills that can run into the hundreds of pages. That’s one thing congressional staff is for. Missing the abortion provision seems like a fairly major miss on the Democrats’ part. If they didn’t miss it, failing to anticipate the outrage of abortion-rights groups at the provision would be a similarly large oversight.

Whatever the case, Republicans are apparently not going to let the Democrats back down. The result is that a piece of legislation that would have won Congress near-universal applause has now become a pointy partisan stick.

By the current calculus of the abortion debate, Lynch might not now be confirmed until 2042, it would seem. In reality, though, a vote on Lynch cannot be delayed forever. The United States will have a new attorney general.

The Senate will have to find a compromise on abortion – an issue where compromise has been nearly impossible – or it will have to drop a trafficking bill that virtually everyone wants.

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