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Senators near deal on sexual harassment policy change

Senators near deal on sexual harassment policy change
© Greg Nash

Senators are nearing an agreement on changes to the chamber’s sexual harassment policy, with key lawmakers saying on Monday a deal could be introduced this week. 

"We are very close and I still think there's a chance we'll get something done in the Senate before we leave this week. That's how close I think we are," Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP loads up lame-duck agenda as House control teeters Congress moves to ensure the greater availability of explosives detecting dogs in the US McConnell sets key Kavanaugh vote for Friday MORE (R-Mo.), the chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, told reporters. 

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharIs there difference between good and bad online election targeting? Election Countdown: Minnesota Dems worry Ellison allegations could cost them key race | Dems struggle to mobilize Latino voters | Takeaways from Tennessee Senate debate | Poll puts Cruz up 9 in Texas Clusters of polio-like illness in the US not a cause for panic MORE (D-Minn.), who has been leading negotiations for Democrats, added that she also hopes to have a deal to announce before the Memorial Day recess and that "it's going very well." 

Senators were tight-lipped about any details of the forthcoming legislation and a Senate aide noted separately that bipartisan talks are still ongoing.

"I think everybody is generally in agreement on a fairly specific concept but we're waiting to get the exact language back from the drafting people," Blunt said when asked if Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellJuan Williams: Trump’s policies on race are more important than his rhetoric It’s Mitch McConnell’s Washington – and we’re just living in it Trump makes new overtures to Democrats MORE (R-Ky.) had signed off on the changes.

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A spokesman for the GOP leader said on Monday evening that senators are continuing to work on the legislation and they didn't have any announcements. 

The majority leader's support would be crucial to getting floor time and a vote on any legislation. 

A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerFive takeaways from the final Tennessee Senate debate Schumer rips Trump 'Medicare for all' op-ed as 'smears and sabotage' GOP senator suspects Schumer of being behind release of Ford letter MORE (D-N.Y.) didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. 

But Klobuchar noted that the Senate Democratic leader had also been involved in the talks, and Schumer has previously called for updating how sexual harassment claims are handled on Capitol Hill. 

A bipartisan group of senators, led by Blunt and Klobuchar, has been privately negotiating for months on legislation to overhaul the Senate's handling of sexual harassment claims.

"I'm working with a bipartisan group of senators right now who are trying to negotiate a final resolution so we can get a bill on the floor and vote on it hopefully as early as next week," Democratic Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandAffordable housing set for spotlight of next presidential campaign Overnight Defense — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — Senators seek US intel on journalist's disappearance | Army discharged over 500 immigrant recruits in one year | Watchdog knocks admiral over handling of sexual harassment case Pentagon watchdog knocks top admiral for handling of sexual harassment case MORE (N.Y.) told MSNBC in an interview that aired on Sunday. 

Blunt noted that while he expects any legislation would skip the committee process and go straight to the floor, Senate passage this week "might be a little optimistic." 

Senators on Monday declined to discuss in detail how their forthcoming legislation would be different from legislation passed by the House or how it would address the issue of personal liability, viewed as a thorny issue amid reports that some senators had concerns about making changes to who pays for sexual harassment settlements involving lawmakers.

"We're very close to [being] ready to talk about this and I think it would be better for us all to be talking about it at the same time, OK?” Blunt told reporters, when asked if they had come to an agreement on the provision. 

Klobuchar told The Hill that individual liability will be addressed to some extent. 

"There will be some individual liability, trust me. It will be there," she added. "Wait till you see what we got. I worked hard on it." 

Currently, settlements involving lawmakers are paid by using taxpayer funding from a little-known Treasury account. The Washington Post reported in December that the Treasury Department has spent $174,000 on settling harassment-related claims over the last five years. 

A House bill passed in February would reform the Congressional Accountability Act and put lawmakers on the hook for any settlement payments.

Senators have been under growing pressure from their own colleagues to pass legislation reforming how the chamber handles sexual harassment complaints. 

Every female senator sent a letter to leadership in March arguing that the current system, set up by the Congressional Accountability Act, is "antiquated." 

"No longer can we allow the perpetrators of these crimes to hide behind a 23-year-old law. It’s time to rewrite the Congressional Accountability Act and update the process through which survivors seek justice," they wrote.

A spokesperson for McConnell told NBC News after the letter was sent that the Kentucky Republican "supports members being personally financially liable for sexual misconduct in which they have engaged." 

Most male Democratic senators, joined by GOP Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBeto O'Rourke will not share million he raised with other Dem Senate candidates Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight Donald Trump Jr. blasts Beto O’Rourke: ‘Irish guy pretending to be Hispanic’ MORE (Texas), sent a similar letter in April. 

Legislation was left out of a March spending bill but CNN reported earlier this month that senators were picking up the pace on negotiations. 

The Senate separately cleared a resolution late last year requiring that all senators and staffers undergo sexual harassment training.