'Back of the Bus': Democrats See a New 'War on Women' in Human Trafficking, Loretta Lynch Fights

Democrats pull the attorney-general battle onto their turf.

Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, speaks during a news conference with Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, not pictured, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

First, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin accused Republicans of blocking an "important civil rights milestone" when they delayed the confirmation of Loretta Lynch for attorney general.

Later, on the Senate floor, Durbin accused Republicans of making Lynch "sit in the back of the bus when it comes to the Senate calendar."

In the meantime, black leaders had dialed into a conference call to warn that Republicans were stifling not just a nominee, but a qualified, black, female nominee. In the words of the director of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund, "African-African American women are watching, and the civil rights community is watching." 

Lynch, as Democrats have taken to saying, has been delayed longer than the last five attorneys general combined. That delay has fed right into a political campaign. On Wednesday morning, Washington Senator Patty Murray and Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin assembled (on short notice) a justice league of women's rights activists to join the identity-politicking chorus. The latest delay was spurred by the bipartisan human trafficking bill, which hit a snarl this month when Democrats (they say) belatedly discovered an anti-abortion funding provision.

Joined by leaders of the National Organization for Women, Moms Rising, and the National Women's Law Center, Murray and Baldwin attacked Republicans for holding Lynch "hostage" by waiting until the passage of the trafficking bill to give her a vote.

"Democrats are ready," insisted Murray. "We want to help survivors of trafficking, and protect women's rights, and get our nominee for attorney general confirmed."

"Having snuck in a stealth anti-abortion provision, now they are trying to cram it down the throats of people," said Terry O'Neill, the president of NOW. Lynch "would be the first African-American woman attorney general of the United States. She is qualified. No one doubts her qualifications." 

As the advocates talked, around the time that National Women's Law Center co-president Marcia Greenberger called for Lynch to be confirmed "for the sake of the country, for the sake of the children, for the sake of the women," the messaging stand-off in the Senate reached a new peak of absurdity. Democrats want to confirm a nominee, and they may already have the votes to do so, with four Republican senators ready to vote with them.

Republicans want to pass the trafficking bill, with the abortion provision; they also think that the Democrats are being opportunistic about a provision they must have been blind to miss. In conversations Tuesday, they were confident that the politics of "blocking a human trafficking bill" would backfire on the minority party.

But even the Democrats who were comfortable supporting the bill pinned the blame for the standoff on Republicans. "When people of greater legislative acumen than I miss it, something's up," said Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat who usually tries to cast anti-abortion votes. "Other than what I've read, I don't know how it developed."

When asked if the votes made Democrats look like they were prioritizing abortion rights over the threat of human trafficking, Casey deferred—and pulled the conversation back to Lynch.

"I try not to weigh in on strategy too much," he said. "I'm in a small subset of the party in that I've supported [the] Hyde [Amendment] before and it would make sense to support the trafficking bill. We've got to figure out something, because the idea that we're going to hit this snag and not get to the attorney general -- it doesn't make a lot of sense."

Lynch's status as the first black, female nominee for her job was destined to play a role in her nomination fight. Republicans browbeat Democrats for years over their refusal to confirm Janice Rogers Brown to the D.C. Circuit; for their filibuster of Miguel Estrada, a Hispanic nominee to a lower court; for the tortured confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. Lynch, who if confirmed would serve for only 22 months,* is nonetheless a high-profile nominee and the star of a good story to tell to black voters. Hillary Clinton acknowledged as much when she elbowed into the story in a series of tweets.

At the Wednesday presser with women's rights leaders, Democrats were so confident about the optics that they didn't even rebut questions about the abortion language. Did they really not know the language had made the bill? 

"I know there's all kinds of stories about who did what, when, how," said Murray. "To me, that doesn't matter. It shouldn't be in there now."

The final question to Murray came right down the middle of the plate. Some of the people she'd assembled had characterized the Republican move as part of a "war on women." Did she agree?

"It feels like every time we turn around and start making progress, whether it's on passing a budget a couple of years ago, or whether it's this trafficking bill, that women have to take a step backwards in order for the Republicans to accept us moving forward," said Murray. "I call that a war on women."

*Theoretically, a President Hillary Clinton could reappoint her in January 2017.

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