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Harassment allegations knock Dems off message

Harassment allegations knock Dems off message
© Camille Fine

Sexual harassment charges against Democratic lawmakers are threatening to drown out the party’s message on tax reform at a crucial juncture in the year-end fight over President Trump’s prized legislation.

Democrats had hoped to use this week to drive opposition to the GOP’s tax-code overhaul, which they say showers benefits on corporations and the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. But the message has been muddied by the lingering storm over the harassment charges swirling around Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenMeet the man poised to battle Dems from the White House Minnesota GOP Senate candidate compared Michelle Obama to a chimp in Facebook post Former campaign aide to New Jersey governor says she was sexually assaulted by his ex-staffer MORE (D-Minn.), once seen as a 2020 presidential contender, and Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersFormer campaign aide to New Jersey governor says she was sexually assaulted by his ex-staffer Kavanaugh controversy has led to politicization of 'Me Too,' says analyst Sexual assault is not a game — stop using women to score political points MORE Jr. (D-Mich.), the longest-serving current member of the House. 

The saga has become a “big distraction,” in the words of House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiElection Countdown: O'Rourke goes on the attack | Takeaways from fiery second Texas Senate debate | Heitkamp apologizes for ad misidentifying abuse victims | Trump Jr. to rally for Manchin challenger | Rick Scott leaves trail to deal with hurricane damage Republicans should prepare for Nancy Pelosi to wield the gavel Pelosi calls Trump’s desire for border wall a ‘manhood issue’ MORE (D-Calif.), who spent much of last week’s holiday recess negotiating for a quick resolution with Conyers and other top Democrats — including Minority Whip Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDems damp down hopes for climate change agenda On The Money: Stocks slide for second day as Trump blames 'loco' Fed | Mulvaney calls for unity at consumer bureau | Pelosi says Dems will go after Trump tax returns Pelosi: Trump tax returns ‘one of the first things we’d do’ if Dems win House MORE (Md.) and leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), of which Conyers is a founding member.

The talks led Conyers, while maintaining his innocence, to step down as ranking member of the powerful Judiciary Committee pending an investigation by the House Ethics panel.

But Pelosi complicated her own message by characterizing Conyers as “an icon” with a long history championing legislation “to protect women” —  a defense too strong for the ears of some listeners.

She also appeared to cast doubt on those accusing Conyers of harassment, dodging a question about whether she believed his accusers by stating that it was something for the Ethics Committee to review.

“I don’t know who they are,” Pelosi told NBC “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd at one point during an interview Sunday. “Do you? They have not come forward.”

Pelosi did a bit of damage control on Monday evening, saying she had spoken to a former Conyers staffer about his conduct and believes her allegations.

“Ms. [Melanie] Sloan told me that she had publicly discussed distressing experiences while on his staff. I find the behavior Ms. Sloan described unacceptable and disappointing.”

Some Democrats have scoffed at the Ethics probe, saying it’s an insufficient response considering the nature of the allegations against Conyers. 

Rep. Kathleen RiceKathleen Maura RiceHouse Dems punt action on rule change for Speaker nominee Hoyer questions feasibility of new threshold for Speaker nomination Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE (D-N.Y.) said the accusations are “as credible as they are repulsive.” She’s urging Conyers to resign.

“If men who engage in this behavior suffered real repercussions, more victims would speak up, and maybe other men would decide to act like decent, civilized adults and not prey on women who work for and trust and admire them,” Rice said.

Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierFemale House Dems urge Senate to delay Kavanaugh testimony for FBI investigation Election Countdown: Kavanaugh allegations put GOP in tough spot | Republicans start to pull plug on candidates | Dems get early start in Iowa | O'Rourke defends Cruz after protesters interrupt dinner | Why Biden is the Democrat GOP most fears Dems see Kavanaugh saga as playing to their advantage MORE (D-Calif.), a self-described victim of sexual harassment who’s sponsored a number of anti-harassment proposals, has said that if the Ethics panel finds the charges against Conyers to be accurate, he should step down.

“The allegations are very serious,” she said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

Some Democrats described Conyers’s decision to temporarily step down as a victory for Pelosi and other leaders hoping to avoid a long-running scandal like that which engulfed former Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), who clung to his Ways and Means chairmanship for almost two years amid mounting accusations of ethics violations. (Rangel was ultimately censured and retired from Congress at the end of last year).

“She deserves some credit for how swiftly this has happened,” said a senior Democratic aide.

Still, Conyers has rejected calls for his resignation, and the revelation of his previously undisclosed harassment settlement has thrust the House into a furious debate over legislation requiring more transparency surrounding similar cases on Capitol Hill. That debate — combined with the slow drip of new allegations against Conyers — is sure to keep the issue in the headlines through the end of the year.

“For leadership, they’re very conscious of — on the one hand wanting to do the right thing and not have abusers [in the caucus], and on the other hand piling on to somebody and then finding out that it was wrong,” said a former Democratic leadership aide. “You’re talking about people’s lives and careers here on both sides.”

Pelosi and other Democratic leaders led the calls for the Ethics investigation — including of a taxpayer-funded settlement paid to one of Conyers’s accusers — and they’re pushing hard for greater transparency in future cases.

The episode creates another potential headache for Democratic leaders fighting to shift the focus back to tax reform: the likely fight over which Democrat will replace Conyers atop the Judiciary Committee. 

The Democrats have a long tradition of rewarding seniority, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who sat just below Conyers on the panel, has assumed the role of acting ranking member. But many Democrats expect an eventual challenge from Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenBipartisan group of lawmakers offer bill to provide certainty following online sales tax ruling Women poised to take charge in Dem majority Live coverage: Tensions mount as Rosenstein grilled by GOP MORE (D-Calif.), who’s next in line.  

That battle, pitting two popular and highly respected lawmakers against one another, could prove yet another distraction as the Democrats are seeking unity ahead of December’s high-stakes policy fights. Complicating those dynamics, it’s unclear if such a challenge could be made for the position of acting ranking member. The Caucus rule is clear when lawmakers are indicted, retire or die, but there’s no specific policy governing such a challenge while the former senior Democrat awaits the outcome of an Ethics probe. 

“It’s murky,” the senior Democratic aide said. “There’s no precedent for the Conyers situation.” 

The Conyers episode is particularly delicate for Democratic leaders because it also involves thorny issues of race. Members of the CBC, along with the other minority caucuses, have long fought to maintain the system rewarding seniority — a system embraced by Pelosi. The CBC put out an initial statement calling the Conyers allegations “disturbing” and urging him to cooperate in any investigations. But the group stopped short of endorsing such a probe.

The office of CBC Chairman Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondWorking together to improve diversity and inclusion State Department: Allegations of racism 'disgusting and false' Congressional Black Caucus says Kavanaugh would weaken Voting Rights Act protections MORE (D-La.) did not respond to questions Monday.

“It’s a really tricky position that’s complicated even more by relationships and personalities,” said the former leadership aide. “The undercurrents within the caucus [mean that] things that aren’t necessarily intended as racial become racial very fast.”

As the Democrats return to Washington on Tuesday to work through their approach to the Conyers allegations and the question of Judiciary leadership, some are predicting that more accusations against Conyers will push the Michigan veteran from Congress — and make leadership’s response that much easier. 

If one or two more accusers emerge, Conyers “will be toast,” said the senior Democratic aide.

“He may already be toast.”