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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.

{mosads}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 McConnell (R-Ky.) accusing Democrats of backing “left-wing lobbyists” over the victims of “modern slavery.”

Minority Leader Harry Reid (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 Feinstein (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 Clinton, 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 Rubio (R-Fla.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Ted Cruz (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 Bennet (Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Patty Murray (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.

Tags Abortion debate Dianne Feinstein Harry Reid Hillary Clinton Hyde Amendment Marco Rubio Michael Bennet Mitch McConnell Patty Murray Rand Paul Richard Blumenthal Ron Wyden Social Issues Ted Cruz

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