US Senate unanimously passes anti-trafficking bill

US Senator John Cornyn speaks to members of the media on March 25, 2014 at the Capitol in Washington, DC (AFP Photo/Alex Wong) (Getty/AFP/File)

Washington (AFP) - The US Senate unanimously passed legislation Wednesday aimed at stopping human trafficking, after lawmakers overcame a dispute about the measure's abortion language that prompted weeks of gridlock.

The partisan standoff had delayed a confirmation vote on President Barack Obama's attorney general nominee, federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch. That Senate vote is now expected as early as Thursday.

Lawmakers voted 99-0 to approve the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which creates a new fund to assist victims and provides tools to stop traffickers and others in the illicit sex trade.

Republican bill sponsor Senator John Cornyn said the act provides crucial assistance for sex-trafficking victims, whom he described as girls typically between 12 and 14 years old.

"This is a terrible, heinous crime, but one that most of us don't see because it operates outside of our vision and experience," Cornyn said.

"But we are throwing a lifeline to these victims of human trafficking by providing them real resources to help first rescue them and to help them heal."

The unanimous vote marks a major bipartisan victory for the Senate, which had plunged into partisan feuding last month over abortion language in the bill.

Democrats cried foul when they saw wording that could be seen as allowing an expansion of federal prohibitions on abortion funding.

With pressure building to get the bill to the president's desk, Cornyn and Democrats crafted a compromise that would divide the victims' fund in two.

One part would be funded by fines paid by sex traffickers and will not be used for health care services. The other would help fund community health centers, which are already prohibited from spending on abortion services.

Nonprofit Human Rights First hailed the Senate vote as "an important step forward in the fight to dismantle the horrific criminal enterprise of human trafficking."

A similar measure passed the House of Representatives, and the two versions need to be reconciled.