Democrats are moving swiftly and forcefully to remove congressional colleagues accused of sexual misconduct and revamp the way settlements are handled. Republicans have proceeded at a slower pace.
Democrats on Thursday saw a second party lawmaker fall as Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said he would resign after being accused by several women of sexual harassment — and urged to quit by many Democratic senators.
Democrats are pushing legislation to bar non-disclosure settlements of sexual harassment cases involving members of Congress or their staffs. Currently such settlements are secret.
Republicans, who control both Houses of Congress, have not scheduled the bills for even a committee vote.
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One GOP lawmaker has resigned because of sexual harassment allegations. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said Thursday he would leave office January 31. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he had told Franks that he intended to refer the allegations to the ethics committee “and told him that he should resign from Congress.”
But the Republican ranks continue to include Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, who paid $84,000 as a settlement to a woman who accused him of sexual harassment, with virtually no pressure coming from GOP lawmakers to push him out of the House. Thursday evening, the House Ethics Committee said it would look into allegations of sexual misconduct against Farenthold.
The party’s Senate contingent could soon include Roy Moore, the former Alabama judge accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl and sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl when he was in his 30s. Moore faces Democrat Doug Jones in Tuesday’s special election.
Republicans talked a lot about harassment Thursday as a GOP-run House committee considered changes to a 22-year-old law dictating how Congress handles allegations against members. Nothing was decided.
Republicans on the House Administration Committee on Thursday offered strong words condemning sexual harassment, but few legislative solutions seem likely to be seriously considered anytime soon.
“There is no place for sexual harassment in our society, especially in Congress. Period,” said Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., the committee chairman. “And one case of sexual harassment is one case too many.”
As chairman, Harper must sign off on settlements involving Congress without knowing full details, which are kept secret under terms of the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act. Thursday’s hearing was to look at possible changes to the act.
It drew a crowd. Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News host whose sexual harassment lawsuit against chairman Roger Ailes resulted in Ailes’ resignation and a $20 million settlement between Fox and Carlson, attended the hearing. So did Dorena Bertussi, who filed the first successful sexual harassment claim against a congressman in 1988.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., has introduced the ME TOO Congress Act, along with 109 co-sponsors, to amend the 1995 law. Though not on the committee, Speier was invited to question witnesses with formal committee members.
“I don’t think it goes far enough,” Speier said of her own legislation, adding that she believes an independent entity, outside of the House, is needed to investigate claims.
A companion Senate bill, introduced in mid-November by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and co-sponsored by 11 Democrats — and no Republicans — has not received a committee hearing.
The House and the Senate did pass separate resolutions last month mandating that all members, staff and aides undergo sexual harassment training.
That’s led to a surge in the number of people taking Congress’ Office of Compliance’s online sexual harassment training course. Five people took the course in September. In October, it was 618. In November, more than 4,000 people took the course, according to Susan Grundmann, the office’s executive director.
“People are finally taking it seriously,” she said.
The furor over harassment shows few signs of fading, as Democrats push for changes while Republicans face new controversies.
Only one Republican representative — Barbara Comstock of Virginia, who represents a suburban Washington swing district — has called on Farenthold to resign.
“We need to reorganize this system ‘cause no member should use the taxpayers’ money to pay for anything of a sexual misconduct or assault situation,” said Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, who is co-sponsoring a bill to do end taxpayer-funded settlements but would not call for Farenthold to resign. “I don’t know his district. I don’t know his people. ... If it was me, I would resign.”
In the Senate, many Republicans have denounced Moore, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky who said Moore, if elected, would face an ethics investigation. Maverick Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona donated $500 to Moore’s Democratic opponent, and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said he did not vote for Moore.
Franken is the second high-profile Democrat to resign this week, joining Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, who announced his departure Tuesday after several women accused him of sexual harassment. Conyers paid $27,000 from his office budget to settle a claim, but denied the allegations.
Franken pointed to the differences between his actions and Republicans in his resignation speech. He cited President Donald Trump, who withstood more than a dozen allegations from women during his successful campaign, and Moore.
“I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” Franken said.
Only one Republican, Flake, was present during Franken’s speech, saying the Democrat was a “friend.” More than two dozen Democrats, including many of the women who Wednesday called for their fellow senator to step down, were on hand and many embraced Franken after the speech.