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House, Senate Agree on Harassment Bill 12/13 06:08

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- House and Senate negotiators have reached an agreement on 
a bill to overhaul the process for handling sexual misconduct allegations in 
Congress.

   The bill updates the decades-old Congressional Accountability Act, which 
governs how lawmakers and aides report sexual misconduct claims. The law has 
been widely criticized as confusing, cumbersome and unfair to victims of 
harassment and abuse.

   The push for the legislation took on new urgency in the past year, as more 
than a half-dozen lawmakers resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct and 
Capitol Hill found itself squarely at the center of the growing #MeToo movement.

   Both chambers passed their own versions of the bill earlier in the year. But 
negotiations dragged on for more than six months as lawmakers tried to 
reconcile them. The sticking points included a $300,000 cap for lawmaker 
liability in the Senate's version.

   The language of the bill had not been released as of Wednesday evening. But 
according to the Senate Rules Committee, it holds lawmakers, including those 
who leave office, financially liable for settlements resulting from all types 
of harassment and retaliation, but doesn't cover discrimination claims. It also 
eliminates mandatory counseling, mediation and the "cooling off" period victims 
are currently required to wait before filing a lawsuit or requesting an 
administrative hearing.

   The bill requires public reporting of settlements, including identifying 
lawmakers who are personally liable, and extends protections to include 
interns, fellows and other staff.

   House staffers will have access to legal representation, while Senate 
staffers will be given access to a confidential advocate able to offer legal 
advice but not act as a representative.

   The deal was announced just days before the end of the legislative calendar.

   "A lot of this was our belief that we had an obligation to fix this 
ourselves, and while I have no doubt a new Congress could have gotten it done I 
think we needed to fix the mess," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the Senate 
bill's sponsor. "The focus was to make sure we had a system that protected 
victims and not politicians."

   The final bill doesn't include some House measures, including making 
lawmakers liable for discrimination settlements and requiring an independent 
investigation into harassment complaints at the beginning of the process.

   But Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., says she's working with House Democrats 
and Republicans to introduce a separate bill next Congress to address those 
issues. Speier became a poster child for the #MeToo movement and champion of 
anti-harassment legislation on Capitol Hill after sharing her own story of 
being sexually assaulted by a high-ranking aide when she was a young staffer.

   "Having spoken with many survivors, the process of going up against a lawyer 
for the institution and the harasser was as traumatic, if not more traumatic, 
than the abuse they suffered," Speier said. "The House has remained focused on 
taking a system rigged in favor of the harassers and making it more 
victim-centric. We are committed to offering victims the tools they need to 
pursue justice. We will address these issues in the next Congress."

   House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, 
D-Calif., along with Committee on House Administration leadership, released a 
joint statement Wednesday praising the bill but acknowledging that more work 
lies ahead.

   "The agreement reflects the first set of comprehensive reforms that have 
been made to the Congressional Accountability Act since 1995," it reads. "We 
believe this is a strong step toward creating a new standard in Congress that 
will set a positive example in our nation, but there is still more work to be 
done."

   The statement says members of both caucuses "remain committed to working in 
a bipartisan manner to address outstanding issues."


(KA)

 
 
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