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 Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations Joe Kennedy introduces resolution rejecting Trump’s transgender military ban Overnight Defense: Gillibrand offers bill to let transgender troops serve | Pentagon ready to protect US personnel in Venezuela | Dems revive fight with Trump over Saudis 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 RyanThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race McCabe: No one in 'Gang of Eight' objected to FBI probe into Trump Unscripted Trump keeps audience guessing in Rose Garden 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 Blunt‘Contingency’ spending in 3B budget deal comes under fire GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration The border deal: What made it in, what got left out MORE (R-Mo.), who co-authored the Senate bill with Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSanders on Trump insult: Crazy that president 'is a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe and a fraud' Trump revives 'Crazy Bernie' nickname one day after Sanders enters race Betting against Bernie? Dems assess the risk 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 Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiWhy Omar’s views are dangerous Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration Overnight Defense: Graham clashed with Pentagon chief over Syria | Talk grows that Trump will fire Coats | Coast Guard officer accused of domestic terrorism plot 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 TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration 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 McConnellFox News has covered Ocasio-Cortez more than any 2020 Dem besides Warren: analysis Durbin after reading Green New Deal: 'What in the heck is this?' Dems think they're beating Trump in emergency declaration battle MORE (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win House Judiciary Dems seek answers over Trump's national emergency declaration 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 BrooksThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race House Dems release 2020 GOP 'retirements to watch' for House Dems unveil initial GOP targets in 2020 MORE (R-Ind.) and Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchHouse panel advances bill to expand background checks for gun sales Whitaker takes grilling from House lawmakers Parkland father on Gaetz advocating for border wall in gun violence hearing: 'Pretty offensive' MORE (D-Fla.) added in a joint statement.

Updated at 12:55 p.m.