WASHINGTON (AP) – Pressured to respond to burgeoning sexual misconduct allegations, the House easily approved a bipartisan measure Wednesday requiring annual anti-harassment training for lawmakers and aides after a debate that rang with lawmakers’ own accounts of such episodes.
Voice vote passage came as Congress waged year-end battles over Republican tax cuts and a potential government shutdown but has been diverted to also address allegations against some of its own. The accused include liberal heroes Rep. John Conyers and Sen. Al Franken and far-right GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama.
With Conyers being pressed to resign from Congress by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and others, Pelosi seemed to suggest it was time for the long-serving liberal and civil rights hero to step down.
“No matter how great the legacy, it is not a license to harass and abuse,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said without mentioning the 88-year-old Michigan Democrat’s name. She said Congress must tolerate no abuse, “no matter your contribution to our country.”
Conyers’ attorney, Arnold Reed, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the lawmaker has no plans to leave Congress and will fight the accusations against him “tooth and nail.”
The House debate also saw Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., describe conversing with a female colleague in the chamber as a congressman he didn’t identify “walked by and groped her from behind.” Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., recounted a story she’s told before about being sexually assaulted while a congressional aide four decades ago by “a distinguished guest of the United States Congress.”
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a sponsor of the training measure, said a woman told her of being on the House floor when a man “grinded up against her and then stuck his tongue in her ear.” Speier, who offered no names and has described the incident previously, has said she herself was sexually assaulted by her office’s chief of staff when she was an aide years ago.
Earlier, House Speaker Paul Ryan said there should be no room for sexual harassment “in any workplace, let alone in the United States Congress.” Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters that having a hostile environment on Capitol Hill is “a disgrace.”
Ryan and others said one upcoming target for examination is the secretive practice lawmakers use to settle complaints using federally financed payments. No information is publicly released and recipients must promise silence.
Many such settlements go through Congress’ obscure Office of Compliance, which has said it’s paid more than $17 million over the last 20 years to resolve claims of sexual harassment, pay disputes and other disagreements. It’s provided no detail. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., who chairs a committee that oversees that office, said he’s requested figures on settlements involving sexual harassment by lawmakers.
Despite unanimity that harassment must be addressed, one Democrat complained leaders weren’t being aggressive enough.
Conyers surrendered his post as the House Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat after a report that he’d quietly settled a complaint by a former aide who said he’d harassed her. But at least three colleagues have said he should quit the House.
One critic, Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., said she left a meeting of House Democrats unhappy that the issue wasn’t being taken seriously enough. She cited recent firings of media figures and told reporters, “We don’t do the same, and I think it’s a disgrace.”
Top Democrats disputed that, and one senior aide said eight lawmakers discussed the issue at the closed-door meeting.
Other accusers have also emerged. Conyers has denied the allegations and returned to Detroit.
Ryan sidestepped a question on whether lawmakers should more vocally address some women’s claims that they were sexually harassed by Donald Trump before he became president. Trump has denied the allegations.
“Right now we’re focused on making sure this place works the right way,” Ryan said.
Lawmakers say the House training measure, similar to a plan the Senate already approved, is merely a first step. Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., a sponsor of Wednesday’s resolution, said lawmakers are considering ending taxpayer-funded settlements, giving victims of alleged harassment more rights and requiring more information about complaints to be publicly released.
Franken was accused by one woman of forcibly kissing her and by three others of grabbing their buttocks while taking pictures. He’s apologized.
In Alabama, Moore faces allegations he’s denied of preying on teenage girls decades ago. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, has apologized after a nude photo of him was leaked on social media.
AP reporters Juliet Linderman and Kevin Freking in Washington and Corey Williams in Detroit contributed.