WASHINGTON – Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) scored a partial victory Thursday as the Senate advanced a plan to help rein in child predators, a proposal that has featured prominently in his early campaigning for re-election.
The Senate voted 98-0 in favor of a Toomey amendment that would make it illegal for school districts to write letters of recommendation for employees who are known pedophiles or who face credible accusations of sexual misconduct. Toomey has warned that the practice is sometimes used by school districts that want to quietly move a suspected child molester to a new location.
"The sad truth is it has happened so frequently that it even has a name – it's called 'passing the trash,'" Toomey said on the Senate floor Thursday morning. He called his bill banning the practice "a huge victory for America's children."
His plan was attached as an amendment to a sweeping education bill. The education bill's fate – along with the final outcome on Toomey's amendment -- is still pending. Toomey said he hopes to vote for the overall bill, but that it will depend on what other amendments are made.
The campaign for Democrat Joe Sestak, the former Delaware County Congressman running to oppose Toomey, blasted out a response calling Toomey's amendment "a campaign talking point akin to saying, 'I like children,'" quoting a Daily News column.
Sestak's team said Toomey has voted against measures that included funding for the National Sex Offender Registry and other programs that protect children. Toomey aides pointed out that his votes weren't specifically on the registry or similar measures. Those programs were small line items in much broader bills that included other spending Toomey opposed.
It's not clear how common "passing the trash" is, but Toomey said last year 459 school employees were arrested for sexual abuse.
Toomey has relentlessly pushed his bill and promoted his work on it. In the past two weeks his campaign began running television ads, including some in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh markets, featuring a child advocate praising Toomey for his effort. He wrote an op-ed in the Inquirer, held a press conference in Philadelphia, spoke on the Senate floor and came to the press area of the Senate to meet with reporters in person, along with multiple conference calls with the media.
Asked about the link to his re-election efforts, Toomey said earlier this week he had been pressing for the measure well before now.
"I've been pushing this for over a year now. I introduced this in the last Congress," he said. "The record is very, very clear. This has been a long-standing effort."
Toomey had to drop a piece of the bill, co-sponsored with Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.). Their original plan would have also required background checks for school employees hired across the country. Teachers' unions opposed that idea, and some Republicans balked at imposing federal standards on local schools.
"We're going to have that fight another day," Toomey said, saying he would continue pressing that issue separately.
Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.), of Bucks County, has pushed a similar law in the House. But that chamber approved the bill with both the "passing the trash" prohibition and the background check provision. The differences will have to be worked out in a conference if the Senate approves the education bill with Toomey's plan attached. Then, the final version will have to again pass both chambers.