WASHINGTON - After being stalled for weeks over abortion language, bipartisan agreement on sex trafficking legislation has been reached in the U.S. Senate.
The legislation was expected to be voted on Wednesday, before it would move onto the House where strong support also is expected.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said in a telephone interview Tuesday that she got the idea for the compromise passing along the cornfields of western Minnesota when she was on her way to Fargo-Moorhead over the Easter recess for a meeting with U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.
What the compromise does is divide the funding for anti-trafficking aid into two funds.
One will be for nonmedical help for victims of trafficking such as shelter, temporary housing, law enforcement and legal aid. Money for this fund, estimated to be about $30 million, will come from increased fines and fees from those convicted in human trafficking cases
The other separate fund will be for health care and medical assistance to victims with money coming from community health care funds or direct congressional appropriations already approved. The fund will start at $5 million, said Klobuchar, with additional funds also possibly added from the criminal fines. Klobuchar said the medical fund could grow to about $30 million to match the other fund, but she was doubtful it would get that high.
Democrats had held up passage of the bipartisan trafficking bill because of anti-abortion language Republicans inserted into the measure. The Republicans tried to get the longstanding Hyde Amendment banning any use of federal funds for abortion services to be applied to the entire earlier bill, despite some of the funding coming from penalties and fees, not direct congressional appropriations. Democrats, who belatedly learned about the move after passing it out of committee and were upset about it, believed because funding was coming from fines and fees it could possibly be used for abortion services as some trafficking victims are victims of rape or coercion
However, by dividing it into two funding sources, it essentially nullified the issue with the Hyde Amendment. The medical assistance will be subject to the the abortion funding ban because it's direct federal funding, Klobuchar said.
Basically, though the Democrats lost the abortion fight.
However, both Klobuchar and U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., were very happy about the bill moving forward.
"For more than a month, the Democrats and Republicans in the Senate prioritized political bickering over helping victims of human trafficking - that's unacceptable," said Heitkamp in a statement. "Now, we can put the victims of these terrible crimes first, and soon pass legislation that support them."
Klobuchar added that another key part of the legislation is that the Safe Harbor provision will be included in the sex trafficking bill as an amendment. She said it passed the Senate's Judiciary committee unanimously so should sail through into the final bill.
Under the provision, minors who committed prostitution offenses and other nonviolent crimes related to being trafficked, like theft or forgery, are granted immunity, a provision known as Safe Harbor.
At least 28 states had Safe Harbor laws enacted as of 2014, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and North Dakota just added the law into its books with Gov. Jack Dalrymple's signature earlier this week, making it at least 29.
Klobuchar said they can't force states to accept the Safe Harbor law, but it will be available to the other states.