In abortion debate, Feinstein evokes 'small step for womankind'

As the Senate ground to a halt last week over an otherwise bipartisan bill to combat human trafficking, a potential moment of compromise emerged when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) went to the floor to deliver a simple speech.

Feinstein began talking about the dangers of sex trafficking and caught the attention of the bill's author, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who had been watching on the TV in his office. He strode to the chamber to engage in a colloquy with her.

The two are senior lawmakers, veterans of the Senate and its often confounding ways -- like the gridlock over the anti-trafficking bill.

Both senators want the bill to pass. But the Senate has been unable to find a way around the problem: Republicans included abortion restrictions in the bill that Democrats find objectionable.

Congress long ago agreed that no taxpayer funds be used for abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother. The so-called Hyde Amendment is approved every year. But Democrats say inserting that  amendment into a newly proposed trafficking victims fund -- as Republicans had done -- is a further restriction on abortion rights, because it would expand the prohibition from taxes to include the restitution fees paid by criminals.

Cornyn reminded Feinstein that she and other Democrats could have objected earlier, before they approved the bill in committee.

Feinstein acknowledged the mistake, saying that she and others did not catch the abortion language in the bill. Those who did failed to understand its significance.

"I will plead mea culpa," Feinstein said, but she urged her colleague to move on so the Congress can clamp down on the $150-billion-a-year sex-trafficking industry. "Let's just take it out. Let's just pass this bill."

The Republican senator said that would not be acceptable. "Abandoning the Hyde Amendment would be a dramatic mistake," he said.

At 81, Feinstein brings to the floor a lifetime of experience that more junior members may lack. And so she began to tell stories: about serving on a California parole board in the 1960s, when she put women behind bars for performing abortions; about "passing the plate" at Stanford, where she earned an undergraduate degree, to collect money for a woman to get an abortion in Mexico.

She asked whether Republicans intended to block trafficking victims from being able to access abortion services.

"Those of us who believe a woman should control her own reproductive system, in concert with her family and her doctor, have an objection to the government getting involved and telling us what to do," she began.

The Texan, however, stood his ground. Feinstein then said she would speak frankly -- "as honestly as I feel."

"You know, many of us ran on the right to choose. I was one of them. I'm old enough to have seen the way it was before," Feinstein said.

"There are many of us who believe this is one small step for womankind," she said. "Let it go,'' she added, referring to the GOP insistence on keeping the amendment.

But this being the Senate, the moment offered only the potential for comity. The solution remained elusive.

Republicans tried five times to advance the bill this week. Five times Democrats filibustered.

As the week came to a close, talks on a compromise continued.

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