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Senate unveils sexual harassment legislation

The bipartisan measure would impose more personal responsibility on members accused of harassment.
by Leigh Ann Caldwell /  / Updated 

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WASHINGTON — After months of closed-door negotiations, a bipartisan group of senators released their legislation to reform the sexual harassment reporting process on Capitol Hill and impose more accountability on lawmakers who are accused of improper behavior.

The agreement, reached between the top two members of the Senate Rules Committee, Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., would impose new requirements on senators, requiring them to personally pay out of pocket for any settlement reached.

Those personal accountability measures had been the main sticking point in a process that left some senators frustrated at the glacial pace of negotiations after the House passed its version of the bill three months earlier.

In order to satisfy some concerns, the Senate took a different tact than the House did by limiting the personal accountability to the member only. If a staff member reaches a settlement in a harassment or discrimination case, the U.S. government, the employer, will still pay the settlement. Under the current system, taxpayer funds are used to pay out any settlement involving a member or aide on Capitol Hill.

The bill also requires a public report of settlements, including the name of the senator or House member who pays a claim. And it ensures that members who leave office are still financially responsible for payment, and any member who doesn't pay, wages will be garnished.

“This bipartisan agreement sends a clear message that harassment in any form will not be tolerated in the U.S. Congress,” Blunt said. “The major reforms in this agreement will, first and foremost, strengthen protections for harassment victims."

Like the House version, the Senate bill also makes it easier for the victim to move through the reporting process by eliminating the mandatory counseling, mediation and the "cooling off" period before a complaint can advance. And the victim will receive legal representation once a complaint is filed. Under the current system, just the accused receives legal support.

Klobuchar and Blunt briefed their respective parties over lunch on Tuesday where they received support for the legislation.

"We didn’t get everything that we wanted," Klobuchar told reporters Tuesday. But she insisted, "we’ve done everything we can to be strong here in this bill."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer released a rare joint statement in support of the legislation, ensuring that it will move to the Senate floor quickly.

"With this agreement, both parties are coming together to update the laws governing how the Congress addresses workplace claims and protecting staff and others from harassment. We’re optimistic that after our members review the legislation, this bill will pass the Senate in short order," the two leaders wrote.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, an outspoken advocate for victims of sexual harassment, said she supports the bill.

"But we must remain focused on finishing this fight by passing this bill in the Senate and the House, to hold members of Congress accountable once and for all and to make sure taxpayers are never again left footing the bill for a politician’s sexual harassment scandal," Gillibrand wrote in a statement.

Because the House and Senate bills are slightly different, the two bodies will have to reconcile those differences.

The House moved much more quickly than the Senate, introducing legislation and passing it within just a few months of a wave of accusations that swept through the Capitol and resulted in half a dozen House members either resigning or announcing their retirements.

The Senate remained largely unscathed by the #Metoo movement outside of one prominent example — Minnesota Democrat Al Franken left the Senate amid pressure from his colleagues after accusations of groping several women, including one who was part of his USO comedy tour before he was a senator.

The Senate has also been far less forthcoming than the House about the process of handling such accusations despite demands for transparency. The Senate released 20 years of settlement amounts, which also appeared to be incomplete, to the public, only doing so the week after Christmas after repeated questions from the press.

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