House and Senate negotiators reached a deal Wednesday on long-stalled legislation to deal with sexual harassment in Congress, a bipartisan breakthrough that comes as Capitol Hill has weathered a series of scandals.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said he and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) briefed their respective caucuses on the deal Wednesday. They hope to pass it unanimously this week or next in the Senate, and send it to the House as a stand-alone bill to prevent it from getting tied up in a government shutdown fight.
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“I talked to the speaker about it today, and if everything goes to plan we’ll have our members in agreement in the next day or so,” Blunt said.
Klobuchar said their breakthrough would overhaul the Capitol‘s “broken process.”
“We need to clean up our own mess here,” she said, adding that the previous process “seemed to be much more focused on protecting politicians than protecting victims.”
The compromise holds members of Congress liable for all forms of harassment and retaliation for harassment claims but not discrimination, and requires lawmakers to reimburse the Treasury Department for settlements stemming from harassment, even if they‘ve left office. Former Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), for example, has refused to repay an $84,000 settlement after a scandal forced him from office.
The legislation would also eliminate “cooling off“ periods and other delays for congressional handling of harassment claims, and allows victims to quickly seek hearings or civil action on harassment allegations. The breakthrough also would create a position in Congress to help victims of harassment and bar secretive settlements by members of Congress.
The Ethics Committee would also receive automatic referrals on harassment claims. In addition, the bill offers employees with claims a confidential adviser and allows them to file claims against both former and current members, if the claims are filed after the legislation’s enactment.
The House had passed its own, more expansive version, led by Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.). Notably, their bill made lawmakers personally liable for harassment settlements, as well as settlements over discrimination.
Speier intends to reintroduce that portion of the legislation with Byrne in the new Congress to address discrimination, hoping to revisit the issue even though it was left out of bicameral bill.
The deal comes one year after the #MeToo movement went viral and sparked the resignation and retirement of several members of Congress, including Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Reps. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Farenthold.
The compromise is also a win for Klobuchar, who is in the mix as a potential 2020 presidential contender. Klobuchar said last week that she was pushing Senate leadership to get a deal done by the end of the year.
“I can’t say it’s one of those dramatic negotiations like you have in major policy bills on health care,” she said, adding that the negotiation was much more about “keeping persistently… making sure we got it done by the end of the year.”
Senate leadership also wanted to finalize a deal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said that he was working to get the bill done by the end of the year, and a person familiar with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s thinking said the New York Democrat “is supportive of getting it done any way possible.“
The bill’s coverage of all forms of harassment is likely to please advocates, who said the Senate’s initial version didn’t do enough to protect employees with harassment claims.
“We and the groups that we work with on this issue have consistently expressed a preference for the stronger provisions in the House bill, and that’s something we have also communicated to [Klobuchar’s] office and to the senators leading this effort,“ said Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center.