The U.S. Senate is worse than ever.
I know this is hard for you to believe, people. But, really, this week was a new bottom. The Senate found itself unable to pass a bill aiding victims of human trafficking, a practice so terrible that it is one of the few subjects on which members of Congress find it fairly easy to work in bipartisan amity.
“This has got to get done for me to continue having faith in this institution,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who’s particularly concerned about sexual exploitation of Native American women. She has always struck me as one of the more cheerful members of the Senate, so this seems like a bad sign.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has passed 12 bills against human trafficking already this year.
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Wow, the House is doing great! If you overlook the introduction of a budget that features terrible math and many assaults on hapless poor people, the lower chamber has been on a roll lately. Speaker John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, rescued the budget for the Department of Homeland Security, and now they’re working out a plan to avoid the next fiscal cliff, which involves keeping Medicare running.
Plus, this week, the Republican majority got rid of disgraced Rep. Aaron Schock, who decorated his office as if it was a scene from “Downton Abbey.” In the wake of questions about his mileage reimbursement requests, Schock announced his resignation. Since he had never successfully sponsored any legislation in his six-year congressional career, his greatest legacy may be a reminder that members of the House of Representatives should avoid brightening the workplace with vases of pheasant feathers.
So the House is working on a new fiscal-cliff plan, passed 12 human trafficking bills and subtracted Aaron Schock. Maybe it’s going to become the center of bipartisan cooperation the nation has been waiting for!
OK, probably not. Anyway, it’s been doing better than the Senate.
At the beginning of the month, the Senate was working on its own anti-trafficking bill, sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, with several Democratic co-sponsors. The idea was to fine sexual predators and give the money to groups that help sex-trafficking victims.
Sounded promising. The Senate Judiciary Committee had easily approved Cornyn’s bill earlier this year. Then before it reached the floor, someone discovered that it had acquired a clause forbidding the use of the money to provide victims with access to abortions.
“They’re putting poison pills in their own bills!” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a phone interview.
Before we discuss how badly the Republicans behaved, we need to take time out to note that none of the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee seem to have noticed that somewhere along the line, this change had been inserted in the bill. (One senator acknowledged that an aide knew, but never shared the information.)
It was easy to miss, the Democrats contended, being very oblique and supertiny.
“Out of a 112-page bill, there is this one sentence,” complained Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
I believe I speak for many Americans when I say that missing a change in important legislation is excusable only if the Senate Judiciary Committee is suffering from a shortage of lawyers.
No one seemed clear on how the new language got there in the first place, but abortion restriction is not something you casually toss into a bill that you want to pass with support from both parties. It would be as if the Democrats had quietly added a stipulation requiring all trafficking victims be barred from carrying a concealed weapon.
Cornyn argued that it made no difference whatsoever because there were plenty of exemptions that would allow any sexually exploited trafficking victim to qualify for an abortion anyway. That was a good point, except for the part where you wondered why he was so insistent that this allegedly meaningless language be preserved at all costs.
“My wish is that we hadn’t junked that bill up with abortion politics,” said Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who has to run for re-election next year. Many Republicans agreed with him, but in public they dug in their heels. In retaliation, the Democrats brought all progress to a halt with a filibuster.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who thought he was going to show how to make the Senate work, was irate, and said there would be no vote on Loretta Lynch, President Barack Obama’s attorney general nominee, until Democrats gave in.
Possible theme for the session: “Republicans who can’t lead meet Democrats who can’t read.”
Lynch did get some support from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who penned a letter urging Republicans to get behind her. When Giuliani is the most sensible voice in the room, there’s not much farther down to go, unless they start bringing in pheasant feathers.