Senators introduce bill to overhaul sexual harassment policy
© Greg Nash

A bipartisan pair of senators on Wednesday introduced long-awaited legislation that would overhaul how the Senate handles sexual harassment claims.

The bill, from Sens. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP loads up lame-duck agenda as House control teeters Congress moves to ensure the greater availability of explosives detecting dogs in the US McConnell sets key Kavanaugh vote for Friday MORE (R-Mo.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharIs there a difference between good and bad online election targeting? Election Countdown: Minnesota Dems worry Ellison allegations could cost them key race | Dems struggle to mobilize Latino voters | Takeaways from Tennessee Senate debate | Poll puts Cruz up 9 in Texas Clusters of polio-like illness in the US not a cause for panic MORE (D-Minn.), would reform the reporting process for victims of sexual harassment and would make members of Congress personally liable for any settlements.

“This bipartisan agreement sends a clear message that harassment in any form will not be tolerated in the U.S. Congress,” Blunt, the chairman of the Rules Committee, said in a statement.

Klobuchar added that the legislation would "help bring accountability and transparency to a broken process."

"For too long victims of workplace harassment in the Senate have been forced into a process that is stacked against them," said Klobuchar, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee.

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Blunt told reporters this week he wants to try to pass the legislation before senators leave on Friday for the Memorial Day recess, which would require the consent of every lawmaker. 

No floor time on the bill has currently been scheduled.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats slide in battle for Senate McConnell and wife confronted by customers at restaurant Pelosi, Schumer: Trump 'desperate' to put focus on immigration, not health care MORE (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Health care a top policy message in fall campaigns McConnell says deficits 'not a Republican problem' Medicare for All is disastrous for American seniors and taxpayers MORE (D-N.Y.) said in a joint statement that they are "optimistic ... this bill will pass the Senate in short order." 

"Both parties are coming together to update the laws governing how the Congress addresses workplace claims and protecting staff and others from harassment," they added. 

The legislation would eliminate a 30-day counseling period, a 30-day mediation phase and a 30-day "cooling off" period currently required for victims of sexual harassment under the Congressional Accountability Act.

Victims of harassment would have to notify the Office of Compliance, which the legislation would rename the Office of Workplace Rights, of their intent to file a claim and would need to file it within 180 days of an alleged violation. 

For a senator to be found personally liable under the new legislation, a hearing officer, judge or the Senate Ethics Committee would have to find that a member personally harassed someone. 

It would also require members, including senators who leave office, to repay the Treasury for any settlements tied to harassment they committed. If a settlement isn't repaid within 180 days, the legislation allows the federal government to target a senator's compensation or finances.

In addition to being responsible for settlements of sexual harassment, the bill would hold members personally liable for claims stemming from harassment "based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, genetic information, age, disability, or veteran’s status," according to a five-page breakdown of the legislation. 

Currently, sexual harassment settlements involving lawmakers are paid by using taxpayer funding from a little-known Treasury account. 

The Washington Post reported in December that the Treasury Department has spent $174,000 on settling harassment-related claims over the last five years.

Unlike in House-passed legislation, settlements stemming from harassment claims made against staffers would still be paid out of a Treasury account. 

"Nonmembers would still be covered by their employer ― like every other employee in America is for their actions," Blunt told reporters on Tuesday.

Pressure on the Senate to take action on sexual harassment has been building for months, after several lawmakers resigned amid high-profile scandals. 

Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenGOP lawmaker once belittled sexual harassment: 'How traumatizing was it?' Meet the man poised to battle Dems from the White House Minnesota GOP Senate candidate compared Michelle Obama to a chimp in Facebook post MORE (D-Minn.) stepped down from the chamber late last year amid several allegations of sexual misconduct, including a woman accusing him of forcibly kissing her.

Rep. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdFormer aides alleging sexual harassment on Capitol Hill urge congressional action AP Analysis: 25 state lawmakers running in 2018 have been accused of sexual misconduct Ex-lawmakers see tough job market with trade groups MORE (R-Texas) announced last month that he would resign from Congress immediately amid backlash over using $84,000 in taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment claim.

The House passed its own sexual harassment bill late last year. And the Senate cleared a resolution requiring that all senators and staffers undergo sexual harassment training.

But senators in both parties have been increasingly demanding broader legislation to reform a reporting process they view as archaic. 

Every female senator sent a letter to leadership in March arguing that the current system, set up by the Congressional Accountability Act, is "antiquated."

"No longer can we allow the perpetrators of these crimes to hide behind a 23-year-old law. It’s time to rewrite the Congressional Accountability Act and update the process through which survivors seek justice," they wrote

Most male Democratic senators, joined by GOP Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDemocrats slide in battle for Senate O'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Election Countdown: Small-donor donations explode | Russian woman charged with midterm interference | Takeaways from North Dakota Senate debate | O'Rourke gives 'definitive no' to 2020 run | Dems hope Latino voters turn Arizona blue MORE (Texas), sent a similar letter in April.

--Updated at 10:31 a.m.