Conyers saga brings Dem tensions to a boil

Greg Nash

Tensions are running high in the House Democratic Caucus over the fate of Rep. John Conyers Jr., with allies of the embattled Michigan lawmaker digging in behind him even as others demand his immediate resignation.

The debate has heightened long-standing generational differences within the party; triggered thorny and uncomfortable conversations about race; fueled the effort to overhaul the way sexual harassment cases are handled on Capitol Hill; and highlighted the differences in how the public and private sectors are addressing a national harassment problem that seems to mushroom by the day.

Publicly, Democratic leaders are pushing the message that Conyers should be afforded due process, and that any calls for him to resign before a House Ethics Committee investigation concludes are premature. 

“I don’t know all the facts, I don’t know the specific allegations,” Rep. Linda Sánchez (Calif.), vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday. 

“I can’t sit and judge a member and call for their resignation unless I’ve been party to hearing all of the evidence and hearing the defense of the evidence,” she said.

Privately, however, there’s overwhelming sentiment among Democratic leaders that the interests of the party would be best served if Conyers resigned immediately, according to numerous aides. 

“The most important thing is to secure his resignation,” said a Democratic aide. “No one wants him to stick around.” 

Conyers, for his part, has no intention of resigning, his lawyer told The Associated Press on Wednesday. And his most powerful allies on Capitol Hill — particularly those in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which Conyers helped found decades ago — have rallied to his defense. 

“He’s the dean of the delegation, I’ve known him all my life,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), a senior CBC member.

“I don’t think we should rush to judgment. … It’s his decision to make,” he said. 

A number of CBC members have suggested Conyers is being subjected to a double standard, particularly in contrast to the Democrats’ response to the harassment allegations swirling around Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). While some liberal activist groups and Minnesota state Democrats have urged Franken to resign, no Democratic senators have joined those calls. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), appearing on “Meet the Press” Sunday, suggested she’s willing to accept Franken’s apologies — if his accusers do as well.

The decision for both Conyers and Franken to remain in Congress has also brought charges that a different double standard is at work: Namely, that media personalities accused of sexual harassment are fired immediately, even as lawmakers stay in their seats.

Most recently, NBC’s “Today” host Matt Lauer was fired Wednesday after the network received a sexual harassment complaint against him, and Minnesota Public Radio host Garrison Keillor was let go hours later after allegations of improper conduct. 

Asked about the distinction, Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat and one of Conyers’s staunchest defenders, suggested that lawmakers answer to different bosses — the voters.

“Who elected them?” Clyburn asked in an off-the-cuff comment captured by NBC News, referring to the media figures. 

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Congress should set “the platinum standard” for the country when it comes to tackling sexual harassment complaints. He suggested an expedited Ethics investigation — not loud public calls for Conyers to step down — would be the most effective way to resolve the issue.

“Calling for the resignation of someone doesn’t actually create the resignation,” Crowley said. “The reality is we have a process in place and we’re calling for expedited process of the Ethics Committee to bring this to the forefront.”

Conyers’s troubles have become a quagmire for Democratic leaders, who are trying to diminish the political fallout from the harassment allegations and shift the focus back to attacks on the Republican tax bill. The result has been a delicate two-step dance, with leadership at once sending a strong message that harassment won’t be tolerated while stopping short of publicly demanding Conyers’s resignation, a step that could alienate a powerful constituency in the CBC.

Two younger Democrats say the tacit approach is not enough. Reps. Kathleen Rice (N.Y.) and Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) want Conyers to resign immediately. 

On Tuesday, Conyers huddled with CBC leaders in Washington before heading immediately back to Detroit. A day later, the members of the CBC gathered once more on Capitol Hill to discuss the way forward.

“We are not urging John to resign,” CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) said, echoing his position from earlier in the week.

“While the Ethics investigation is going on, we think that is a decision for him and his family and his constituents to make,” he said.

Asked when Conyers might return to Washington, Richmond left it open-ended.

“Whenever he’s ready,” Richmond said.

Tags Al Franken Bennie Thompson Cedric Richmond John Conyers Kathleen Rice Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal

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