A deal has been struck among Senate negotiators on the long-stalled sexual harassment legislation that would overhaul how complaints are made and handled on Capitol Hill and would hold lawmakers personally responsible for paying sexual harassment settlements out of their own pocket, rather than taxpayers.
The Senate negotiators, Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt and Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the chairman and top Democrat, respectively, of the Senate Rules committee, briefed members Tuesday about the contours of the deal behind-closed-doors at each of their party’s policy luncheon.
By all accounts so far, the presentation was well received at party meetings by both Republicans and Democrats — short of a few questions from lawmakers on the specifics – and both sides expressed optimism for the bill’s chances following the briefing.
“We had positive response on our side,” Klobuchar said after the meeting.
“It would be great if we could get this done before the Memorial (Day week-long) break,” Blunt said.
Afterward, the leader of each party embraced their efforts – an important moment for the legislation that has hit many road blocks and at times nearly completely stalled out since the House passed their version over three months ago.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said they are “getting very close to agreement that everyone can sign off on.”
“It had very broad support,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday of the briefing.
Blunt and Klobuchar will “compare notes” later Tuesday, according to Blunt, about how the deal has gone over with their members and will likely put out final language on the legislation by Wednesday.
The House of Representatives passed their version of the bill in February, which would reform the Congressional Accountability Act, which set up the process for handling sexual harassment complaints on Capitol Hill and hold lawmakers personally liable for paying settlements, rather than allowing them to use taxpayers’ money out of a little-known account of the US Treasury.
The details of what changes the Senate made to the House-passed bill have not yet been made public – but a congressional aide with knowledge of the Senate’s legislation outlined the main differences.
The biggest change centers around the language of members liability for sexual harassment and discrimination claims. The Senate’s version aims to tighten up the language to make very clear when members would be required to pay for settlements – and when they would not.
Senate lawyers felt the way the House bill was written left the lawmakers potentially open for a member themselves to legally be responsible to pay the settlement if a staff member’s wrongdoing led to a settlement. The Senate bill will outline more clearly if the member was responsible for the misdeed, they would pay out of their own pocket. If a member of the staff is responsible, the settlement would still come out of the US Treasury fund, using taxpayer money.
The member would be on the hook for all settlements from their own misconduct, including other forms of discrimination such as gender, race and age discrimination. The member’s liability would be capped at $300,000 – as the legislation writes they would be on the hook for “compensatory damages” which are already limited in current law at $300,000.
The Senate bill would also require reporting of settlements and awards paid only once a year, whereas the House bill calls for reporting semi-annually.
The Senate bill does not include a general counsel investigation, as the House bill did, which some believed would have lengthened the process for the victim.
The Senate bill lengthens the period from 45 days to 90 days that the victim has after filing a claim to decide to file in federal court – giving them more time to decide their next step, if they want to proceed with the process.
And the Senate bill, unlike the House bill, also creates an employee adviser within the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (which would be the former Office of Compliance) – a new position that would advise employees through the process.
The Senate negotiators have been working closely with McConnell and Schumer throughout the process so the expectation is, with their stamp of approval, the bill will now be quickly moved in the Senate – likely bypassing committee process and being brought directly to the floor of the Senate for a vote.
Once passed in the Senate it would need to either be sent back to the House again or go to conference committee taken up by a conference committee – but that next step forward is not yet set.