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Senate Reaches Agreement On Changes To How Congress Handles Sexual Harassment Claims

May 23, 2018
Originally published on May 23, 2018 9:52 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There's an agreement in the Senate to change the way Congress handles sexual harassment claims. A bipartisan bill negotiated by Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Missouri Republican Roy Blunt would require lawmakers to personally pay settlements or penalties tied to their own misconduct. Right now those settlements are taxpayer-funded. And also, they're secret. The bill comes after several lawmakers have been forced to resign because of harassment or misconduct claims.

NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow is on Capitol Hill to walk us through it all. Scott, how are you doing?

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So remind us how deeply the #MeToo movement has hit Congress in the past year.

DETROW: Pretty hard. You've had numerous lawmakers who have resigned or said they're not going to run for another term because of one kind of allegation or another. That includes Democrat Al Franken, who had to step down from the Senate. And these allegations exposed a complaint reporting process in Congress that Amy Klobuchar calls antiquated.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: It was basically muzzling victims. It was designed to do that. It had a mandatory mediation period, a mandatory counseling period, a mandatory cooling off period. This made no sense.

DETROW: And as lawmaker after lawmaker had these issues, these stories highlighted the fact that harassment settlements are paid for with taxpayer money. That was the case with Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Patrick Meehan, who resigned after a settlement with a staffer was made public.

CORNISH: So what exactly would this legislation do?

DETROW: The lawmakers would have to personally repay awards or settlements tied to their own personal actions. This gets rid of these taxpayer-funded settlements. It also gets rid of those cooling off periods that you heard Senator Klobuchar talking about. Staffers with a complaint would be able to immediately move to mediation, an administrative hearing or legal action. And this would also make the settlements public in reports issued a couple times a year. And these reports would include the amount of money being paid out.

CORNISH: Is this a done deal? We've seen a lot of so-called bipartisan agreements fall apart.

DETROW: Nothing's ever a done deal with this Congress, but this seems like as much of a done deal as you will see. You had Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer put out a joint statement supporting this bill today. That's pretty unusual. Here's McConnell speaking on the Senate floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: Here's what all this adds up to - a clearer, easier and more timely process for those who seek to file harassment claims and greater personal accountability and transparency in the event that misconduct occurs.

DETROW: So we don't have an exact timeline yet of when a vote is going to take place, but both leaders are promising it's going to happen pretty soon.

CORNISH: We've been talking about the Senate. What about the House, right? Don't they have their own harassment bill?

DETROW: Yeah. They passed this back in February, and there was a lot of frustration building in the Senate as this measure took so long to negotiate. There were a couple of different letters - open letters that senators signed saying, hey, we need to have this happen faster. So if this passes the Senate, it's going to have to go back to the House, and they're going to hammer out the differences.

Big picture - these measures are pretty close. They do a lot of the same things that we just talked about. But there are a lot of tactical differences that are going to be - need to be worked out over the coming weeks or months. Republican Congressman Gregg Harper played a big role in the House bill. He says he and his staff are reviewing the Senate measure, but they're glad that it's here.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Detrow. Scott, thank you.

DETROW: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.