Senate harassment bill runs into opposition from House
© Greg Nash

House lawmakers are expressing opposition to a Senate bill that would change how Congress handles sexual harassment claims, arguing it would not do enough to support victims of harassment.

Critics of the bill, approved Thursday by the Senate in a voice vote, are backed by civil rights groups who say the legislation would limit the behavior for which lawmakers can actually be held accountable.

“I look forward to going to conference because it appears to shift the power back to the institution instead of the victims,” Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierFemale lawmakers pressure Facebook to crack down on disinformation targeting women leaders Democrats demand Esper explicitly ban Confederate flag and allow Pride, Native Nations flags Overnight Defense: Pompeo pressed on move to pull troops from Germany | Panel abruptly scraps confirmation hearing | Trump meets family of slain soldier MORE (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

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Speier, a leading voice in the effort to impose more stringent rules for sexual harassment on lawmakers, separately told CNN’s “New Day” that “both Republicans and Democrats on the House side are disappointed” in the Senate bill.

So far, House leaders aren’t promising to take up the Senate bill as written.

AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBudowsky: Why I back Kennedy, praise Markey Democratic super PAC quotes Reagan in anti-Trump ad set to air on Fox News: 'Are you better off?' Trump lashes out at Reagan Foundation after fundraising request MORE (R-Wis.), noted the chamber passed its own bipartisan legislation in February.

“We are currently reviewing the Senate bill, and discussing next steps,” she said.

House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg HarperGregory (Gregg) Livingston HarperCongress sends bill overhauling sexual harassment policy to Trump's desk Dems cry foul in undecided N.C. race Mississippi New Members 2019 MORE (R-Miss.) added that the committee is “currently reviewing the bill that was passed by the Senate … along with their proposed reforms.”

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSkepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal GOP expects Senate to be in session next week without coronavirus deal House Republicans introduce legislation to give states 0 million for elections MORE (R-Mo.), who co-authored the Senate bill with Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharSenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Senate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package Lobbying world MORE (D-Minn.), downplayed the chances that lawmakers would need to formally go to conference to work out their differences.

But Speier is calling for a conference, and she is getting support for that idea from House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame On The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Top Democrats say postmaster confirmed changes to mail service amid delays MORE (D-Calif.).

"Given the substantive differences between the two bills, the House and the Senate must now go to conference to produce a strong, final version that provides greater transparency and accountability, and fosters a climate of respect and dignity in the Congress," Pelosi said in a statement Friday.

Democrats on the House Administration Committee added in a tweet that “from what we’ve reviewed so far, we continue to believe the House version is a stronger bill — in terms of adjudication process and protection of victims and rights of all parties.”

The looming fight over how to reconcile the two chambers' proposals could hamper lawmakers’ ability to get a speedy resolution on an issue that has plagued Congress amid high-profile harassment scandals both on and off Capitol Hill. 

Sexual misconduct has forced seven lawmakers to either resign or retire, and Harvey Weinstein — formerly a major donor for Democrats and one of several high-profile men in Hollywood facing accusations — turned himself in Friday morning to the police, who have charged him with rape, among other counts.

Klobuchar said in a joint interview with Blunt on CNN published on Thursday that she wanted to send a bill to President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE’s desk “this summer.”

The Senate legislation would overhaul Congress's harassment policy by streamlining the claims process for victims and making members personally liable for harassment settlements.

It would eliminate a 30-day counseling period, a 30-day mediation phase and a 30-day “cooling off” period required for victims of sexual harassment under the Congressional Accountability Act.

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 doubles the amount of time, compared to the House bill, for a victim to decide if they want to file a lawsuit after they approach the Office of Congressional Compliance.

But lawmakers and outside groups criticize it for only holding lawmakers personally liable for harassment settlements. In the House legislation, lawmakers were personally liable for settlements stemming from harassment or discrimination.

“The Senate’s proposal does not provide the strong mechanism of transparency and accountability that taxpayers deserve – for example, by ensuring that no taxpayer money is used to pay settlements for discrimination or harassment,” said Remington Gregg, counsel for civil justice and consumer rights at Public Citizen.

Five groups, including Public Citizen, sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks Overnight Health Care: Ohio governor tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of Trump's visit | US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead | Trump: COVID-19 vaccine may be ready 'right around' Election Day MORE (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Senate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package Trump backs plan to give airlines another billion in aid MORE (D-N.Y.) saying the Senate bill “falls short of an acceptable compromise, and may have unintended negative consequences.”

Critics of the bill are also voicing concern that the Senate legislation’s definition of harassment is too narrow and that it uses the phrase “unwelcome harassment,” which, they argue, could create an unintended loophole that makes it harder for victims of harassment to file a claim.

House lawmakers and outside groups are also raising concerns about the level of oversight the Senate bill gives to the Senate Ethics Committee, underscoring skepticism that lawmakers will be unbiased when deciding whether or not to force their colleagues to pay a settlement.

Under the Senate bill, the Ethics Committee, which conducts most of its work behind closed doors, would get to review and sign off on any settlement agreements that involve a senator.

Members of the House Ethics Committee took a jab at the Senate bill, noting that the House-passed legislation “does not condition the imposition of personal liability upon the outcome of any such investigations.”

“We believe that any proposal … should include provisions to ensure that Members remain personally liable for their own conduct with respect to discrimination and retaliation,” Reps. Susan BrooksSusan Wiant BrooksCook shifts 20 House districts toward Democrats Democrat Christina Hale and Republican Victoria Spartz to face off in House race in Indiana Key races to watch in Tuesday's primaries MORE (R-Ind.) and Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchHouse votes to sanction Schweikert over ethics violations House Ethics panel recommends ,000 fine for Rep. Schweikert's campaign finance violations Florida county official apologizes for social media post invoking Hitler  MORE (D-Fla.) added in a joint statement.

Updated at 12:55 p.m.