Politics & Government

Texas’ Cornyn at the center of controversy over trafficking bill

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, says Democrats’ complaints are “more about politics.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, says Democrats’ complaints are “more about politics.” AP

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, promised in January when the Republicans took back the majority that they would do things differently, allowing amendments from both sides and generally operating in a bipartisan fashion.

So when the Senate began debate this week on his seemingly noncontroversial, bipartisan legislation to combat human trafficking, the Texan was expecting it to easily clear the chamber.

Instead, his bill, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, became a lightning rod as Democrats suddenly did an about-face, closed ranks and accused Republicans of sneaking in an anti-abortion provision. Republicans angrily denied it and accused the Democrats of failing to read the bill, which had been posted for two months.

The result, in what was supposed to be a new era of cooperation, has been more gridlock, with some sharp, personal accusations thrown in.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., filed a procedural vote that is expected to take place Tuesday that he hopes will break the stalemate.

“That’s really what I find so baffling is what has been a uniquely bipartisan effort has now turned into a partisan filibuster, and I, frankly, am perplexed by that,” Cornyn said Thursday. “Maybe we'll have some folks come out and explain why they’re filibustering this bill they voted for in the Judiciary Committee. We got a unanimous vote in the Judiciary Committee.”

Cornyn, a former Texas Supreme Court judge, had worked closely with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a former prosecutor, to develop the bill. Supported by 13 Democratic co-sponsors and 18 Republicans in addition to Cornyn, the bill would encourage law enforcement to pursue traffickers, who usually exploit underage girls, and create a $30 million fund to help victims from fines imposed on traffickers.

The bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in February and was poised for quick Senate approval.

“All of a sudden, at the 11th hour, there’s an objection,” said Cornyn.

On the second day of Senate consideration, Democrats realized that the bill included a provision known as the Hyde Amendment stating that none of the funds in the bill could be used for abortions. The provision is a mainstay of all appropriations bills dating back to 1976 and specifies that taxpayer money cannot be used for abortions.

Lack of decency?

While Republicans pointed out that the language had been in the bill since it was introduced in January, incensed Democrats said that Republican aides had deceived their Democratic counterparts. Furthermore, they said it expanded the Hyde Amendment by extending it to fines, not taxpayer funding, and to a five-year authorization instead of a yearly appropriation bill.

“I tell you something, there is one advantage to being around here a long time,” said four-term Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who is retiring next year. “You have the sense of what used to be decent around here when your word was your word and your bond was your bond.”

Democrats contended that Republicans told them in emails that the bill was unchanged from one last year — that did not include the Hyde language — except for minor fixes.

For their part, Republicans ridiculed Democrats for not having read the bill, which is only 68 pages long.

“I don’t believe the Democrats didn’t read the legislation,” Cornyn said. “I think this is more about politics.”

Neither side, for now, intends to budge. Democrats want the abortion provision stripped from the bill before voting on it, and Republicans want Democrats to vote to remove it as part of the bill, a tactical advantage that favors Republicans.

As for all the partisan bickering, Cornyn said, “We’ve tried to change things.”