WASHINGTON — Congress can get so busy that senators and their staffs don’t always have time to scrutinize bills they pass and letters they sign — or so it seemed this week, anyway.
Two episodes left Democrats blushing, some Republicans muttering under their breath, and taxpayers perhaps wondering what those well-educated people do on Capitol Hill.
First, Republicans ridiculed Democrats for claiming they somehow missed a key provision in a bill filed two months ago. The bill, unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, would combat human sex trafficking.
Democrats suddenly blocked it this week because it would bar the use of fines, paid by convicted traffickers, to pay for abortions in most cases.
Congress has attached similar language to spending bills for years. But Senate Democrats say this provision goes further, and they didn’t realize it was in the trafficking bill.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said some think it got there by “sleight of hand.” He blamed Republicans for not flagging it.
“Democratic senators who had been working in good faith on this critical legislation for years assumed that their Republican partners were being forthright when they provided a list of changes” that didn’t include the abortion language, Reid said. “Republicans are now saying that trusting them was a mistake.”
Republicans could hardly suppress their laughter.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said it was astonishing to see Democrats balk at a provision “they claim somehow they missed, after it being in there for two months.”
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas suggested Democrats knew about the abortion language long ago, but decided only this week to oppose it.
To buy the Democrats’ argument, Cornyn said, “you’d have to suppose that all of the professional staff for all the Senate Judiciary Committee didn’t read the bill” and “didn’t advise their senators” of its contents.
“I don’t believe that Senate Democrats didn’t read the legislation,” Cornyn said. The abortion provision, he said, “was as plain as the nose on your face.”
Democrats preferred to change the subject Thursday. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota discussed the trafficking bill with reporters, but when asked if she knew about the abortion language, she said, “I’ve got to get going.”
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said top Democratic staffers read the bill, but the abortion language was “obscure,” and “we missed it.”
“I asked my staff, the ones I was about to fire, and they said, ‘No, it didn’t say that explicitly,’” Durbin said.
While Republicans snickered at the Democrats’ trafficking jam, Democrats howled at the 47 GOP senators who warned Iran’s leaders in a letter that any nuclear agreement made with President Barack Obama might be short-lived.
Editorial writers, think tanks and some conservative pundits have denounced the letter, calling it a dangerous undermining of any president’s ability to set foreign policy.
Prominent GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona initially laughed off the criticism, calling it “a tempest in a teapot.” But he and others were more somber Thursday, suggesting they may have acted a tad hastily.
McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, said many of the 47 senators signed the letter in a hurried gathering this month, as a major snowstorm approached Washington.
“They were in a hurry to get out,” McCain told reporters. But Obama “said that he would veto any legislation that went through Congress that required ratification, and that’s what triggered the letter, and I totally agree with it,” he said.
Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who faces re-election next year, said Friday: “If there was any regret, tactically, it probably would have been better just to have it be an open letter addressed to no one.”
Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas defended the letter, but said he also might do things a little differently if given the chance.
“It could have been addressed to other folks and gotten the message out,” Roberts said. “But I think the message is more important than who we send it to.”
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced a bill to allow more time to scrutinize amendments and bills. “It is imperative we pay close attention to the legislation we pass,” he said.
Now that’s a goal the 114th Congress can aspire to.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Erica Werner and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.