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Abortion debate stalls 2 popular bipartisan bills before Congress

Senate minority leader Harry Reid said he would “stand up for women against Republican efforts to codify and expand the scope of Hyde restrictions.”Jewel Samad/Getty Images/File

WASHINGTON — Bipartisan bills to assist sex trafficking victims and improve the health care system for America’s senior citizens seemed innocuous enough.

But the treacherous politics of abortion have crept into a Senate debate over these widely supported measures and threatened their passage, thwarting even mid-size accomplishments in the new Congress.

Senate Democrats have slowed progress on the bills because they object to a provision routinely embedded in health spending bills that bars funding for most abortions.

Their hardened stance has played well with abortion rights groups. But it also has given Republicans an opening to accuse them of obstructing important bills over narrow concerns — a reversal of the allegations lobbed by Democrats when they held control.


“This is not about public policy, this is about political posturing,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.

Representative Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican who managed the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, gets credit for the legislative language that is a key element of the Senate’s deadlock with both bills.

He sponsored a provision that passed in 1976 and prevents taxpayers from paying for abortions in most circumstances. The ban gets inserted into annual health care funding and mainly affects low-income women on Medicaid.

Senate Democrats refused to support a bill this month that would increase penalties on human traffickers, because the so-called Hyde Amendment would mean almost no money from a special victim compensation fund could go toward abortions. (The amendment does make exceptions for rape, incest, and threats to a mother’s life.)

Democrats accused Republicans of trying to expand the parameters of the Hyde Amendment by applying it to the compensation fund, which would be paid for by fines levied against offenders. And on that technical argument, the entire trafficking bill is stuck.


Some Democrats balked again this week at Hyde Amendment language in a bipartisan bill, which passed the House overwhelmingly Thursday, to end a dysfunctional Medicare payment system that threatened doctors and patients with annual cuts.

They disliked the way the Hyde Amendment was applied to funding for community health centers, though few, if any, have performed abortions.

Senate minority leader Harry Reid, in a Tweet last week, said he would “stand up for women against Republican efforts to codify and expand the scope of Hyde restrictions.”

The abortion language is one of several concerns senators have with the bill.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said she was disappointed with provisions that, among other things, “needlessly threaten to undermine protections for women.”

Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts emphasized that the Senate “must ensure we do not interfere with access to care, especially for women, children, and low-income patients.”

The House has set aside any qualms about abortion in the Medicare bill. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a longtime women’s rights advocate who negotiated the bill with House Speaker John Boehner, said she was “proud of what the legislation means to women and their health issues.”

Leaders of the House Pro-Choice Caucus also supported the measure, along with all Massachusetts House members, creating the potential for a rare split in the delegation.

“The abortion language is offensive but it’s nothing new,” said Representative James McGovern, a Worcester Democrat. “It’s basically the status quo.”

Representative Stephen Lynch, a South Boston Democrat, said the bill gave much-needed money to health centers in his district and “if the abortion advocates aren’t concerned, I’m not concerned.”


The House move has given additional fodder to Senate Republicans, who are eager to paint their counterparts as the source of Washington dysfunction.

Reid “seems to only be happy if the Senate is not functioning,” said John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican and member of Senate leadership, who supports the Medicare bill.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee announced it would sponsor automatic phone calls in states where senators face a tough reelection battle and note their “filibustering bipartisan legislation to combat human sex trafficking.”

But abortion rights groups, which hope to dismantle the Hyde amendment, see Senate Democrats as their last line of defense to prevent Congress from trampling women’s reproductive rights.

“Democrats in the Senate need to stand up for this because where does it end?” said Megan Amundson, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. “Just because it’s the status quo, doesn’t mean it’s right.”

The abortion debate has triggered broader effects.

Republicans have refused to hold a vote on the confirmation of attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch until senators deal with the trafficking bill, grinding the transition of the country’s top lawyer to a halt. And if the Senate does not address the Medicare bill when they return from a two-week recess, doctors will get hit with a 21 percent pay cut.

“This is a dog and pony show,” said Thomas Whalen, an associate professor of social sciences at Boston University. “It shows just how 2016 is going to warp our contemporary politics more than it already has.”


Jessica Meyers can be reached at jessica.meyers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jes-sicameyers.