WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans fell short of the 60 votes needed to limit debate Tuesday on legislation that would increase penalties for sex traffickers.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has picked up bipartisan support for his Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking legislation since he introduced it in January. But some Senate Democrats have a problem with a rider in the bill, disallowing use of federal funds to assist trafficking victims in getting abortions.
Democrats opposed to the rider voted against ending debate on the abortion amendment ahead of the 55-43 vote – five short of the required three-fifths majority — on the entirety of the legislation.
Democrats, a minority in the Senate, said Republicans were attempting to politicize the trafficking issue.
“Enough is enough,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said during debate. “Senate Republicans have a choice today: politics as usual or work with us to get this done.”
The bill would amend the federal criminal code to expand the definition of sex trafficking and make “absolutely clear for judges, juries, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials that criminals who purchase sexual acts from human trafficking victims may be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted as sex trafficking offenders,” this, according to text of the legislation.
In a statement, Cornyn said, “We need to do everything we can to crack down on human traffickers and bring an end to these terrible crimes, and the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act will provide law enforcement with the tools to do so, while also lending victims a helping hand.”
The bill equates the punishment for soliciting sex from a victim of trafficking to that of the traffickers themselves.
“I’m glad that this issue is finally getting the kind of attention that it deserves,” Cornyn said. “But I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t disappointed that this bill has become political.”
Money from fines accrued under the new law would establish the Domestic Trafficking Victims’ Fund. But Republicans don’t want any of that money used to fund abortions for victims of trafficking.
“For those who, like myself, have actually prosecuted these cases, we know how important it is,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., “Listen to the victims. They say, ‘Take out this language and let’s move forward.’”
The bill is not dead. Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Republicans would block the nomination of Loretta Lynch for attorney general until Democrats come to an agreement on the anti-trafficking legislation.