US lawmakers stuck over sexual harassment bill

Kate Irand Bryan Lowry
Mcclatchy Washington Bureau

Washington – Despite the momentum from the #MeToo movement – which helped elect historic numbers of women to Congress last week – lawmakers are still stuck over how to deal with sexual harassment in the House and Senate.

Both chambers passed different bills earlier in the year to revamp how Congress would handle staff and member harassment. But talks to write a final bill haven’t made concrete headway in months.

And after Congress returned to work days after this year’s elections, senators and representatives still haven’t formally met to talk about harassment reform. Only staff-level meetings have been held.

Major differences remain between the House and Senate versions. Leaders in the effort realize they need to act.

“Congress would be well served by everybody knowing what these new rules are, in law, before our new members of the Congress raise their hands to be sworn in,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the Senate’s lead negotiator on the issue.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has publicly said he wants to bring legislation to the floor, probably connected to another bill, such as the spending plan Congress has to pass next month.

But the Kentucky Republican’s support won’t matter if the two chambers fail to agree on a bill.

The Congress elected this month will convene in early January, and will have to start the legislative process all over. Reform advocates worry that McConnell, who will retain his job next year, has more pressing priorities in December, such as keeping the government funded and passing a farm bill.

A series of scandals involving misconduct by lawmakers, as well as the national outcry about sexual harassment in the entertainment and media industries, prodded action in both chambers earlier this year. But the bills have significant differences and negotiations on a compromise bill have made little progress since the summer.

An overwhelming amount of voters consider sexual harassment a “serious problem,” according to network exit polls.

At least 102 women will be serving in the House of Representatives next year, including at least 36 freshmen. The next Senate could have at least 24 women.

The House bill covers both harassment and discrimination, while the Senate only covers harassment.

The House version provides an independent investigator with subpoena power and requires the member of Congress to reimburse the taxpayer-funded Treasury Department with any settlement if that investigation finds the member is at fault.

The Senate bill routes everything through its Ethics Committee without first having an independent investigation and has stricter standards on when members have to reimburse the Treasury. The bills also differ on how to provide legal counsel to potential victims.

There were some potential compromises in staff negotiations. Senators are considering eliminating the word unwelcome from the term “unwelcome harassment,” as part of their definition for instances when members had to pay out of pocket.