WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate gave swift approval Thursday to a bill that revamps the system for handling sexual harassment complaints on Capitol Hill.
The bill eliminates mandatory waiting periods for handling claims and requires lawmakers to repay the Treasury for harassment settlements.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., called Thursday’s vote, done unanimously without a roll call, “an incredibly important moment.”
“We are completely overhauling the sexual harassment policies of the Congress,” she said of the bill, crafted with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “This is an antiquated policy that literally required 30 days of counseling, forced counseling, 30 days of forced mediation, 30 days of ‘cooling off’ period, and it’s time for a change.”
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Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, in a joint statement on Thursday, praised the “impressive proposal.”
“This is an important and meaningful reform, and the result of a broad bipartisan consensus that we should do more to hold people accountable, protect staff, and help prevent harassment in the first place,” they said.
The bipartisan effort now goes to the House, which passed legislation earlier this year amid a widening national debate over sexual misconduct, including in Congress.
But critics say the bill doesn’t go far enough to hold lawmakers accountable and protect staff members from misconduct and discrimination.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who became something of a spokeswoman for anti-sexual harassment efforts on Capitol Hill after she shared her own story of being sexually harassed, said in a statement prior to Thursday’s vote that the Senate legislation “appears to shift the power back to the institution instead of the victims.”
Several advocacy organizations including the ACLU, the National Women’s Law Center, Public Citizen and others sent a letter to Senate leadership outlining their concerns.
“This bill contains numerous provisions that are contrary to key principles we’ve previously articulated, falls short of an acceptable compromise, and may have unintended negative consequences,” the letter said.
The letter also criticizes the bill for specifying that members will only have to repay settlements stemming from sexual harassment, and not other types of discrimination. Critics worry that such a provision could create loopholes, prompting lawmakers accused of harassment to instead settle for sex discrimination to avoid having to repay the settlement amount.
The Senate bill allows a victim to opt out of mediation within 10 days. But critics wrote in the letter that the bill should make the process of mediation entirely optional rather than the default. The letter also takes issue with the bill’s requirement that congressional ethics committees review each settlement to determine whether an investigation is necessary.
“The bill gives members of the ethics committees discretion to decide whether to investigate the claim against the member, and to determine whether the member engaged in harassment,” the letter says. “This provision appears to provide an opportunity for a member who has settled a claim to avoid personal accountability and to be absolved from reimbursing the taxpayers.”
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, said she thinks the House and Senate should go to conference “given the unanimous, bipartisan vote in support of the House position.”