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Senate women in both parties pressure leaders for a vote on sexual harassment bill

Senate women in both parties pressure leaders for a vote on sexual harassment bill
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and wife Franni Bryson before announcing his resignation in December. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

In a bipartisan reproach, all 22 female U.S. senators Wednesday urged their leaders to bring to a vote measures meant to strengthen the hand of victims of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.

The Senate has so far declined to take up any effort. The House in early February approved a bill that gave accusers the right to free legal assistance and required lawmakers to pay for any settlements, rather than taxpayers.

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The House measure also made voluntary a now-mandatory mediation process that has been criticized by opponents as biased against victims and unnecessarily protracted.

"The Senate's inaction stands in stark contrast to the bipartisan effort in the House of Representatives that led to the passage of bipartisan [harassment] reform legislation in February," said the senators' letter, addressed to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and the Democratic leader, Charles E. Schumer of New York.

The letter cited a survey showing that four in 10 women who are congressional staff members consider harassment a problem in their workplace, and one in six said they had been harassed. The survey was conducted in July by CQ Roll Call.

No sexual harassment measures were included in the omnibus spending bill passed last week by the House and Senate and signed Friday by President Trump.

"We strongly agree that the Senate should quickly take up legislation to combat sexual harassment on Capitol Hill," Schumer said through a spokesman.

An aide to McConnell suggested that a bipartisan measure was being framed but was not yet close to being proposed.

"Sen. McConnell supports members being personally, financially liable for sexual misconduct in which they have engaged," his spokesman David Popp said.

The push to enact new measures to combat sexual harassment in the congressional workplace was spurred in the fall when several members were accused of unwanted sexual acts.

Two Democrats, Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, a rising party star, and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the longest serving member of the House, were forced out in early December after accusations of sexual misbehavior were made against them. In Conyers' case, former aides were among the women making accusations.

Republicans also came under fire: Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas announced that he would retire at the end of the current term after news broke that a woman who accused him of harassment had received an $84,000 taxpayer-funded settlement. Farenthold, who has denied wrongdoing, promised to repay the money but has not yet done so.

Another Republican House member, Trent Franks of Arizona, resigned under pressure from party leaders in January after two female aides said they felt uncomfortable when he asked them to serve as surrogate mothers for his child.

The spate of accusations came amid a national uproar about sexual harassment and assaults that felled, among others, producer Harvey Weinstein and news personalities Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose.

Trump has been accused by more than a dozen women of unwanted sexual aggression. One, Summer Zervos, is suing Trump for defamation after he called her a liar. She says he tried to force himself on her at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 2007.

During the campaign, Democrats pounced on the accusations against Trump while many Republicans brushed them aside. Trump says he has never harassed any woman.

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That partisanship also slowed Washington's response to sexual harassment, as did concern among some members that voters, rather than their peers, deserved the right to judge members of Congress and senators.

The House measure passed in February was seen as a landmark rewriting of the Congressional Accountability Act, which became law in 1995. The senators — 17 Democrats and five Republicans — demanded in the letter that their chamber follow suit.

"Survivors who have bravely come forward to share their stories have brought to light just how widespread harassment and discrimination continue to be through Capitol Hill," the senators wrote. "No longer can we allow the perpetrators of these crimes to hide behind a 23-year-old law."

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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