Senate effort to pass sexual harassment overhaul gets new push

After months of inaction and stalled momentum, Senate negotiators are breathing new life into the effort to pass sexu...

Posted: May 9, 2018 5:42 AM
Updated: May 9, 2018 5:42 AM

After months of inaction and stalled momentum, Senate negotiators are breathing new life into the effort to pass sexual harassment legislation to overhaul the once-secretive system through which sexual harassment and misconduct complaints are handled on Capitol Hill.

Three congressional sources with knowledge of the negotiations tell CNN that conversations have been picking up behind the scenes and are slowly moving in the right direction towards negotiating final legislative language that could pass the Senate.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Patty Murray of Washington and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, are in negotiations looking for a compromise right now and it's progressing, albeit slowly. A Democratic source with knowledge of the negotiations says there's reason for optimism that something is going to get done soon. But key in the days ahead will be whether that optimism will be met by McConnell, who has yet to signal his stance on the ongoing negotiations. McConnell controls the Senate floor schedule, dictating what legislation will ultimately be taken up by the upper chamber.

McConnell spokesman David Popp would not read out the current negotiations, other than to characterize them as still "ongoing."

"We mean business and so we're continuing to push to get this done and I believe we will get it done," Klobuchar, a Democrat, told CNN late last month.

The legislation would reform the Congressional Accountability Act, which set up the process for handling sexual harassment complaints on Capitol Hill and would hold lawmakers personally liable for paying settlements.

Murray told CNN on Tuesday there are several provisions that the group, led by Klobuchar, is still trying to work the language out on -- but expressed confidence that they'd be able to get agreement.

"I think we are so close. And it's a matter of words at this time and getting Mitch McConnell to agree to it."

The senator says the hope would be that McConnell would "hotline" the bill -- a strategy used by leadership when they want to move legislation quickly.

"The leadership is keeping their process on this close," Murray said, "I would think this is something you could get hotlined fairly quickly."

The House of Representatives passed their version of the legislation in February. But over the last three months, similar efforts to pass it in the Senate have hit road blocks and the pressure to pass something urgently seemed to have run out of steam.

The legislation was left out of the spending bill that Congress passed in March -- widely seen among lawmakers as the best possible vehicle to attach it to -- over disagreements about specific provisions.

A Democratic Senate aide told CNN much of the dispute centers around the personal liability aspect of the legislation, which would hold lawmakers personally responsible for paying any sexual harassment settlements themselves, rather than allowing them to use taxpayer's money out of a little-known account in the US Treasury. Another Democratic Senate aide tells CNN that negotiators are now focusing in on changes that would address those concerns over settlement-specific provisions of the legislation.

RELATED: Speier tells Ryan to demand Farenthold pay back settlement in harassment case

Senators working on the issue have tried over the last three months to keep the spotlight focused on issue, even while legislative negotiations had all but puttered out.

In March, all 22 female Senators, from both parties, wrote a letter to Senate leadership expressing their "deep disappointment" in the Senate's inaction, calling on McConnell to bring legislation to the Senate floor. In April, 31 Democratic male senators and Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz followed up with a similar letter of their own demanding action.

"It has been 90 days since the House unanimously passed a bill to address sexual harassment in Congress. The Senate still hasn't taken action," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, tweeted Monday.

The legislation was born in the wake of the #MeToo movement last fall and after the outcry over the culture in congressional offices on Capitol Hill.

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