More than 60 senators are calling on Senate leadership to overhaul the way Congress deals with sexual harassment, an effort that has stalled despite widespread bipartisan support.
At the end of March, all 22 female senators, led by Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Patty Murray, wrote a letter to Senate leadership asking for a vote on reforms and expressing "deep disappointment" that the issue had not yet been addressed.
On Thursday, 32 male senators joined them in their own letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Both letters call for changes to Congress’s sexual harassment policies that would require lawmakers to pay for settlements they make in response to allegations of sexual misconduct or other complaints made against them personally — rather than using taxpayer money.
Although both letters expressed general support for overhauling the current system, members stopped short of endorsing any one piece of legislation that has already been introduced.
A spokesperson for McConnell said members from both parties continue to work on this issue. “The Leader [supports] members being personally, financially liable if they engage in sexual harassment,” the spokesperson said in an email to BuzzFeed News.
“We strongly agree that the Senate should quickly take up legislation to combat sexual harassment on Capitol Hill," Schumer said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
Lawmakers have largely sought to overhaul of the Office of Compliance, the secretive office responsible for handling sexual harassment claims and other employment issues in Congress that facilitated these settlements.
The House was able to quickly pass legislation (and a separate resolution) that addressed harassment after multiple high-profile sexual harassment allegations against lawmakers came to light, including against former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and former Rep. John Conyers, both of whom resigned.
Legislation that passed the House would make significant changes to the Congressional Accountability Act, which passed in 1995 and applied many federal workplace laws related to things like harassment and access for those with disabilities to the congressional workplace.
"No longer can we allow the perpetrators of these crimes to hide behind a 23-year-old law,” the female senators wrote in their original letter about sexual harassment. “It’s time to rewrite the Congressional Accountability Act and update the process through which survivors seek justice.”
In their letter sent Thursday, the male senators wrote, “Echoing our Senate colleagues, ‘Everyone deserves to work in an environment free from harassment and discrimination.’ We urge you to bring legislation before the full Senate without delay to ensure that the congressional workplace embodies this ideal.”
It is still unclear when or if the Senate will take up legislation on the issue. Senators from both parties at one point hoped to attach language changing the system to a must-pass funding bill that worked its way through Congress in March, but that did not ultimately happen.
“I think our greatest challenge now is to be sure that the members understand exactly what they’re voting for as they accept these new levels of personal responsibility,” Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the chair of the Senate Rules Committee, told BuzzFeed News on Thursday.
Blunt added that “the easiest way” to push this through would have been on must-pass legislation, like the spending bill.
Blunt did not sign onto Thursday’s letter. Neither did Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who had already written his own letter to McConnell in March, urging him to bring up his legislation addressing sexual harassment (which was nearly identical to what the House passed) on Capitol Hill up for a vote. BuzzFeed News reached out to both senators’ offices for comment on the new letter.
“This information that has come out here in the last six or eight months, both in the private sector and the public sector, is unconscionable. There’s plenty of reason to change things,” Grassley said on Thursday.