Abortion politics tie up the Senate
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The charged politics of abortion have returned with a vengeance in the Senate, creating a bitter impasse over a human trafficking bill that has galvanized outside groups ahead of the 2016 elections.

Senators for two weeks have debated a provision in an anti-trafficking bill that Democrats charge would expand the Hyde Amendment, which for decades has restricted the use of federal funds for abortions.

The debate over the provision has been unusually rancorous, with Democrats accusing Republicans of misleading them about whether the language was in the bill.

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Republicans have denied that charge, and at least one Democratic staffer has admitted knowing the provision was in the legislation.

The war of words has spilled over onto the floor of the Senate, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week GOP is consumed by Trump conspiracy theories The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture MORE (R-Ky.) accusing Democrats of backing “left-wing lobbyists” over the victims of “modern slavery.”

Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidBiden's first 100 days is stylistic 'antithesis' of Trump The Memo: Washington's fake debate on 'bipartisanship' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring MORE (D-Nev.), meanwhile, has suggested Republicans used “a sleight of hand” to “manufacture a political fight.”

Democrats argue the abortion provision would represent an expansion of the Hyde Amendment because it would apply to a fund for victims of human trafficking that would be paid for through criminal fines. That would be different, they say, from a prohibition on the use of federal tax dollars.

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap Lawmakers react to guilty verdict in Chauvin murder trial: 'Our work is far from done' Senate Democrats call on Biden to restore oversight of semiautomatic and sniper rifle exports MORE (D-Calif.) defended the Democratic resistance to the bill and said getting the Hyde Amendment removed would be “one small step for womankind.”

“It is one battle we can win,” she said. “And we have had loss after loss after loss.”

No matter what happens to the bill, the debate has brought into sharp focus the outsized role abortion will play in the 2016 election cycle, when the White House and the Senate will be up for grabs.

Both parties are well aware of the stakes. With four of the high court justices in or nearing their 80s, the next president will likely get to appoint multiple members of the Supreme Court, potentially reopening the fight over the Roe V. Wade decision that abortion opponents have fought for decades to reverse.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' Hillary Clinton: There must be a 'global reckoning' with disinformation Pelosi's archbishop calls for Communion to be withheld from public figures supporting abortion rights MORE, the likely Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, has seized on the Senate battle, accusing Republicans in a tweet of “playing politics with trafficking victims” and threatening women’s rights.

By weighing in on the fight, Clinton positioned herself against some of her potential Republican rivals for the White House: Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDemocrats cool on Crist's latest bid for Florida governor Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  MORE (R-Fla.), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Sherrod Brown calls Rand Paul 'kind of a lunatic' for not wearing mask Overnight Health Care: WHO-backed Covax gets a boost from Moderna MORE (R-Ky.), and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCheney drama exposes GOP's Trump rifts Pollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls MORE (R-Texas), who have all voted for the anti-trafficking legislation.

Outside groups are also coming off the sidelines.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is making robocalls against five Democratic senators who are up for reelection in 2016: Reid, a top GOP target, as well as Sens. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetManchin on collision course with Warren, Sanders Democrats vow to push for permanent child tax credit expansion Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap MORE (Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenBad jobs report amplifies GOP cries to end 0 benefits boost Putting a price on privacy: Ending police data purchases Overnight Health Care: Biden sets goal of at least one shot to 70 percent of adults by July 4 | White House to shift how it distributes unallocated vaccines to states MORE (Ore.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurraySchumer 'exploring' passing immigration unilaterally if talks unravel Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap House passes bill to combat gender pay gap MORE (Wash.).  

NRSC Spokesperson Matt Connelly accused them of “playing politics” with the trafficking bill and pledged to “hold them accountable for that.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Justin Barasky fired back, saying, “voters will remember these kinds of despicable political games come 2016.”

Susan B. Anthony List (SBA), which opposes abortion rights and has been active in the fight over the trafficking bill, said the debate in the Senate shows Democrats “will stop at nothing” to prevent restrictions on abortion.

“Democrats are doubling down to their commitment to abortion on demand,” said SBA communications director Mallory Quigley. “Voters are certainly paying attention to it. …[It’s] lit up our grassroots.”

Marcy Stech, the national press secretary for the pro-abortion rights EMILY’s List, said the trafficking fight helps draw a “strong contrast” between the two parties heading into 2016, as Republicans “continue to push for an extreme agenda.”

“This looks bad for Republicans. ... Voters are paying attention,” Stech said. “[It’s] going to continue to plague them.”

Abortion politics are also creeping into the debate over the House’s “doc fix” bill, which would repeal Medicare's sustainable growth rate (SGR) to prevent payment cuts to doctors.

Wyden warned Thursday that the draft bill contains a “rider” that would restrict abortions at government-run community health centers — something that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office argues is already in place under federal law.

While it’s unclear whether that issue will impact the Medicare talks, the House has already had one dust-up over abortion this year — but the split was among Republicans.

In January, the House was forced to abandon a once-popular bill banning late-term abortions. Several Republicans, including Reps. Renee Ellmers (N.C.) and Jackie Walorski (Ind.), threatened to vote against the bill because exception for rape would only apply to women who reported the crime to police.

The shelving of the bill was an embarrassment for House Republicans and for anti-abortion groups, who were in the middle of their annual “March for Life” in Washington.

Several of the anti-abortion groups have threatened to turn their grassroots army against the Republicans who balked at the bill in the next elections.

“I believe in political retribution, otherwise you might as well close up shop,” SBA President Marjorie Dannenfelser told The Hill in January.

— Sarah Ferris contributed.