WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's long-stalled nominee for attorney general, federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch, is on her way to a confirmation vote after senators extricated themselves Tuesday from a partisan dispute over abortion that had stood in her way.
An agreement announced by Senate leaders allowed both Republicans and Democrats to save face on a once-uncontroversial bill to help sex-trafficking victims that had turned into a litmus test on abortion.
Although that issue was not connected to Lynch, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had been holding off her nomination vote until the trafficking issue was resolved.
The long delay since Lynch was nominated last fall has provoked increasingly agitated protests from Democrats and Obama, who last week called the situation "embarrassing," even though Democrats had controlled the Senate for part of that time and had failed to bring her up for a vote.
Lynch, who would become the nation's first black female attorney general, replacing Eric Holder, is now the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. She has been waiting 164 days for a vote, far longer than most other recent attorney general nominees.
"I said from the beginning to the end that we'd take up the attorney general nominee just as soon as we finished trafficking," McConnell told reporters Tuesday in defending his approach. "I'm happy with where we are. We needed to finish the trafficking bill. It was an important bill."
"Let's get out of this quickly," said Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "Let's get Loretta Lynch confirmed."
A vote on final passage of the trafficking bill was expected as early as Wednesday, and the vote on Lynch could come as early as Thursday, though timing was still being worked out.
She is expected to win confirmation with at least five Republicans supporting her. Although her record is widely praised, a number of Republicans have said they can't support her because of her backing for Obama's executive moves on immigration.
The new human-trafficking deal aims to address Democratic concerns that the legislation would expand existing prohibitions on spending federal funds for abortions. The legislation envisions a new victims' fund made up of fees paid by sex criminals, and Democrats said that applying abortion spending prohibitions to that new source of non-taxpayer funds was an expansion they could not accept.
Republicans in turn said they had to be satisfied that existing abortion spending prohibitions would not be curtailed.
The final language, negotiated by Reid and Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patty Murray, D-Wash., would resolve that issue by establishing two sources of money for the new victims' fund. Money collected from the fines assessed on criminal perpetrators would be used for services such as legal aid, but not for health or medical services, and therefore language on abortion would not be relevant. Money already appropriated by Congress for Community Health Centers — and already subject to abortion spending restrictions — would be available for health and medical services.
Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House was reserving judgment until it had a chance to review the final language in the deal, but he also said the endorsement from some Democrats was "certainly an encouraging sign."
"If we see strong Democratic support, including from champions for women's health care like Patty Murray, that certainly seems like the kind of thing the president would be able to support," Earnest said.
The trafficking bill, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously, had appeared headed for quick passage through the Senate earlier this year until Democrats started raising alarms about the abortion language. They contended Republicans had sneaked it into the bill, although Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar's office has acknowledged that an aide was aware of it.
The pot of money at issue was quite small, but outside interest groups, including Planned Parenthood, got involved and the bill stalled, even as lawmakers in both parties bemoaned the Senate's inability to advance such a bill.
Tuesday's deal allows all sides to claim victory: Republicans for ensuring money for medical procedures is subject to the existing abortion restriction, under a rule known as the "Hyde amendment," and Democrats for establishing that the Hyde restriction isn't expanded to a new source of money.
Klobuchar took credit for the two-part approach, which she said in an interview came to her as she was driving through a cornfield in Minnesota. Officials in other offices involved credited Cornyn, Reid, Murray and their aides for negotiating the agreement.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, applauded the agreement, saying, "Thankfully, Senators Reid and Murray and other women's health champions held the line" in the negotiations.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.