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 FrankenCongress sends bill overhauling sexual harassment policy to Trump's desk Senate approves bill reforming Congress's sexual harassment policy Kamala Harris to keep seat on Judiciary Committee MORE (D-Minn.), once seen as a 2020 presidential contender, and Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersBrenda Jones sworn into House for final weeks of 2018 GOP approves rule for Don Young Michigan New Members 2019 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 PelosiTrump finds himself isolated in shutdown fight Key Trump aide on willingness to shut down government over wall: ‘If it comes to it, absolutely’ Impatience, exuberance will define new Congress 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 HoyerTrump finds himself isolated in shutdown fight Pelosi gets her swagger on Term limit fight highlights growing pains for Pelosi’s majority 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 RiceBipartisan lawmakers unveil bill to tighten some campaign rules Pelosi agrees to term limits vote; insurgency collapses Dem strategist: 'Every elected male should be concerned about a female challenger in 2020' 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 SpeierCongress strikes deal on bill for sexual harassment cases involving lawmakers Dem lawmaker: Trump Jr. lied to Congress on two occasions House Dems plan to re-interview witnesses from Russia probe 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 LofgrenHillicon Valley — Presented by AT&T — Google CEO gets grilling before Congress | Pressure builds for election security bill | Trump to target China over IP theft | Experts warn cyber criminals growing more brazen Dem lawmaker asks Google CEO why Trump's photo shows up when she searches for 'idiot' Disputed North Carolina race raises prospect of congressional probe 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 RichmondDeGette dropped from chief deputy whip spot Pelosi divides Democrats with term-limit proposal Hoyer bucks Pelosi over term limits: 'She's not negotiating for me' 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.”