Was the human trafficking compromise worth delaying vote on Loretta Lynch?

Senate negotiators struck a deal to tweak the human trafficking bill that has held up the confirmation proceedings for President Obama's nominee for U.S. attorney general, Loretta Lynch. The holdup was due to an unrelated fight over access to abortion for human trafficking victims. Gwen Ifill talks to Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., about the deal and the delay.

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    It took more than five months, but Senate negotiators finally came to agreement on the bill that had blocked Loretta Lynch's path to confirmation as President Obama's second attorney general.

    The hitch appeared in an entirely unrelated fight over access to abortion for victims of human trafficking.

  • MAN:

    Mr. President? The majority leader.


    Word of the deal came first thing this morning, on the Senate floor, from Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, Majority Leader:

    I'm glad we can now say there is a bipartisan proposal that will allow us to complete action on this important legislation, so we can provide help to the victims who desperately need it.


    The agreement also means the Senate will likely vote, McConnell said, in the next day or so on attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch.

    That was welcome news to Minority Leader Harry Reid.

  • SEN. HARRY REID, Minority Leader:

    Let's get out — get rid of this quickly. Let's get Loretta Lynch confirmed quickly and move on to other matters.


    The human trafficking bill and the nomination had been blocked for months. Initially, there was bipartisan backing for the bill that sets up a fund for victims of trafficking. But an impasse developed when Democrats objected to language that would expand prohibitions on abortion funding.

    Republicans, in turn, insisted they wouldn't take up the Lynch nomination until the human trafficking bill passed. Today's deal tweaks the abortion language in a way that both sides say they can accept. It also comes several days after President Obama blasted the delay of the Lynch nomination.


    There are times where the dysfunction in the Senate just goes too far. This is an example of it. It's gone too far. Enough. Enough. Call Loretta Lynch for a vote. Get her confirmed. Put her in place. Let her do her job. This is embarrassing.


    The president nominated Lynch last November to replace Eric Holder. If confirmed, the career prosecutor from New York would become the first black woman to hold the office. The White House today called news of the Senate deal an encouraging sign.

    So what really broke the logjam?

    For that, I spoke a short time ago to two members of the Senate.

    We start with Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker.

    Senator Wicker, welcome.

    There seemed to be two arguments going on here in the Senate recently that you have reached an agreement about today, but one was about the human trafficking bill, one was about Loretta Lynch. What was the connection?

    SEN. ROGER WICKER, (R) Mississippi: Well, the connection is, actually, we needed to break the logjam on the trafficking bill, a very important piece of legislation, to protect vulnerable young Americans, and also people who will be trafficked into the United States.

    Senator McConnell had made it clear that the schedule would be the trafficking bill, then the Lynch nomination. And I think it was important for him to stand firm on that. And as it turns out, it broke the logjam. Both matters will now be considered, and we will be able to move on, I think, in a bipartisan fashion.


    As you know, Democrats think that the Republicans were basically holding the attorney general's nomination hostage for an abortion-related amendment included in this human trafficking bill. What's your response to that?


    Well, my response is that the Hyde language has been part of legislation for over three decades, and really this sort of came as a surprise that this would be thought of as an issue holding up a trafficking bill.

    As it turns out, here's the upshot. The Hyde language was neither expanded nor diminished in this negotiation process. It is exactly as it has been over the decades. We have broken the logjam on the trafficking bill now. And, by the end of the week, I think we will have a new attorney general confirmed, and that issue will not be there to divide Americans anymore.

    So, I think it's a good result. And, frankly, if Ms. Lynch has been instrumental in breaking a logjam on a very important trafficking bill, I have to feel like she would feel that it might actually have been worth the delay.


    Does that mean that you would vote to confirm her?


    I have made it clear. I thought she should — I think she should be brought to the floor. I think she will be confirmed, and I have made it clear all along that I will be a no-vote.

    But there are going to be plenty of votes for her confirmation, and there won't be much of a dust-up over there. Because of her support of some of the president's executive overreaches, I will be a no-vote. But she will be confirmed, and at the end of the day, the president will have a new attorney general.


    We saw the Medicare doctors fix. We have seen a trade agreement reached, so far at least. It still has to work its way through the Congress. And now this. Is this a new day, a new day post-gridlock in the United States Senate?


    Well, I think so. And also there's an education bill that has come out of the Health Committee with strong support, not only from Chairman Alexander, but also the ranker member, Senator Murray.

    I actually think that our new majority leader, Senator McConnell, by being firm, but also by opening up the amendment process, has created an atmosphere where we're going to see a lot more bipartisanship and a lot more legislation moving. And, frankly, as someone who is in charge of the Campaign Committee, I think legislative accomplishment and ending gridlock, I think that is good politics for both parties, and I think the American people are going to find it a bit refreshing.


    Was it worth it to keep the nominee waiting this long?


    Well, I'm sorry that it was held up so long. I'm sorry that a trafficking bill that should have been passed, frankly, by unanimous consent or a virtual unanimous vote was held up for some four weeks.

    But this is the sort of thing that sometimes happens in legislative bodies. The good news is that we have, I think, a very positive result. We will have a strong trafficking bill to move on to the House and to the president's desk, and the president will have his nominee, with — with not an inordinate amount of delay, considering we're trying to break a logjam.

    And I think now we have reached a point where we're going to see a lot of bipartisan accomplishments.


    Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, thank you for joining us.


    Thank you for having me again.


    And now we turn to Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware.

    Senator, thank you for joining us.

    In the end, what was the real disagreement over this human trafficking bill, in your view?

    SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), Delaware: Well, Gwen, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was brought to the floor with the expectation that it would pass easily. It's a broad bipartisan bill to strengthen protections for those who have been the victims of human trafficking.

    But there was some language stuck into the bill that deals with the coverage of the Hyde amendment to a new fund that would be created by act, a fund that comes from penalties paid by those who are convicted of being involved in sex trafficking. And that would be an unwarranted expansion of the Hyde amendment to a new pool of federal funds that many in my caucus thought was completely inappropriate.

    So, there was an injection of a partisan issue into what shouldn't have been a partisan concern, the protection of those who have been victims of trafficking.


    If that's true, if that was the injection of a partisan issue, how did it end up holding up, tripping up whatever word you want to use for it, the nomination of Loretta Lynch for five-and-a-half months?


    Well, I don't see any connection, but the Republican majority leader said we wouldn't move to consider the nomination of Loretta Lynch until the Trafficking Victims Protection Act cleared the floor.

    So we're in the unacceptable position today, Gwen, of having this remarkable, qualified, capable nominee, who was nominated 174 days ago, who has now been sitting waiting for action on the floor longer than all seven previous nominees to be attorney general, and double — she's been waiting longer than all seven before her, double that amount of time, because the trafficking bill has been holding it up.

    It has taken that long for us to clear Republican objections to making a responsible compromise that would allow us to move forward. There are rumors that the final deal has been reached, but we have spent all day today waiting to hear which amendments Republicans will insist on our voting on some time today or tomorrow before we can move to consider Loretta Lynch's nomination.


    Now, maybe — do you understand how your constituents might be watching this standoff and thinking they agree on this bill, they agree on its goals, but they can't move forward? Does that send the wrong message?


    Of course it does. It's incredibly frustrating. It suggests that the Senate is having great difficulty moving forward on even simple bipartisan bills that should make it possible for us to strengthen protections for those who are victims of the heinous crime of human trafficking.

    It also means that the Republican majority in the Senate is having difficulty prioritizing. I think it's a civil rights issue that we haven't been able to move forward Loretta Lynch, an incredibly qualified nominee, to be attorney general, who's previously been confirmed twice to serve as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District.


    Why? Why is that a civil rights issue?


    Because we have got pressing issues in the United States, Gwen. We have got issues all over this country of relationships between law enforcement and communities, where she would be particularly capable, particularly adept at helping resolve those longstanding and challenging issues.

    She's also someone who has shown particular strength and skill in prosecuting corruption, in prosecuting human trafficking, in prosecuting gang activities. So she would be a talented and capable attorney general. She would be the first-ever African-American woman to serve in this position, but she also would, I think, bring a well-needed, a badly needed voice of calm and of bridge-building between many of America's communities and the concerns of law enforcement.


    Sounds like she has your vote. Does she have enough votes?


    She's absolutely got my vote. In fact, she came out of Judiciary Committee with a fairly strong bipartisan vote months ago.

    But it will be very close on the floor. I think at this point there are only five Republicans who have publicly expressed some support for her. So it's my hope that having, finally cleared the hurdle of this trafficking victims act, that we will continue and move and confirm Loretta Lynch on a bipartisan basis.


    Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, thank you very much.


    Thank you, Gwen.

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