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With anti-sex-trafficking bill past Senate, AG vote can take place

Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch appeared before the US Senate in January.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press/File 2015

WASHINGTON — The Senate unanimously passed legislation Wednesday to help victims of human trafficking, ending a tortuous partisan standoff over abortion that also delayed confirmation of President Obama’s nominee for attorney general.

The vote was 99 to 0 to approve the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which expands law enforcement tools to target sex traffickers and creates a fund to help victims.

The House has passed similar legislation, and the White House has voiced support.

‘‘We have not fallen deaf to the cries of those who actually need our help, the victims of human trafficking,’’ said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, the lead GOP sponsor.

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The vote put a bipartisan punctuation mark on legislation that started out with wide support from both parties but veered into a partisan cul-de-sac last month, when Democrats noticed language that could expand federal prohibitions on abortion funding. How or why Democrats had failed to see the provision in the first place became a topic of dispute.

At the same time, attorney general-designate Loretta Lynch languished, despite commanding enough votes to be confirmed, because Republican leaders made the decision, never fully explained, to delay her confirmation vote until the trafficking bill was completed. Now that it is, Lynch will get a vote Thursday to replace Eric Holder and become the nation’s first black female attorney general.

With all sides eager for a resolution, Cornyn worked with senators Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, and Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada to arrive at a compromise. It addresses Democratic concerns about expanding prohibitions on spending federal funds for abortions, by splitting the new victims’ fund into two pieces. One part would be made up of fines paid by sex traffickers, and it could not go for health services, rendering the abortion restrictions moot. The other part, which could go for medical services, builds on $5 million already appropriated for Community Health Centers, which are subject to abortion spending prohibitions.

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Ian Kitterman, policy director for Demand Abolition, a Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit working to reduce the demand for purchased sex, commended the Senate vote: “This legislation marks a historic step forward in holding sex buyers accountable for their role in perpetuating sex trafficking.”