WASHINGTON — Lawmakers embraced a bipartisan bill that would modernize procedures for handling sexual harassment allegations on Capitol Hill, but they were divided Sunday over whether congressmen facing allegations should resign or face some other immediate consequence.
On NBC's Meet the Press, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declined to say whether Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., should suffer any immediate penalty over allegations that he sexually harassed a junior female aide in a case that was resolved with a nearly $30,000 payout to the ex-staffer.
"We are strengthened by due process. Was it one accusation or two? John Conyers Jr. is an icon in our country," Pelosi told NBC's Chuck Todd when asked whether the longest-serving member of the House should resign.
She hinted that, because the allegations broke while Congress was not in session, the Democratic caucus would talk about Conyers when lawmakers return Tuesday night, which might prompt Conyers to take a step himself. "I believe he understands what is at stake here and he will do the right thing," she said.
But members of Congress have said that the "due process" system is outdated and biased toward insulating the lawmaker from suffering penalties for misbehavior. "The whole system needs to have a comprehensive shift," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said on ABC's This Week.
Speier and Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., are the lead sponsors of legislation slated for a vote this week that would streamline the process, amid growing accusations and revelations about members of Congress that are similar to those involving powerful men from Hollywood, the media, and Silicon Valley. The legislation would require mandatory training on harassment and discrimination for all lawmakers, staff, and interns who work in Congress.
"There needs to be one standard for members," Comstock said on This Week, noting that Conyers benefited from making a payment that was never revealed until a BuzzFeed report last week. "No more secret payments."
Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has denied any wrongdoing and said his payout was meant to resolve the issue and did not constitute an admission of culpability. His payout came from the regular allowance for lawmakers for staff salaries and other administrative costs. As the Washington Post reported this month, a separate account overseen by the Office of Compliance has paid out more than $15 million in settlements of sexual harassment and other cases of discrimination.
One Democrat, Rep. Kathleen Rice, N.Y., has suggested that Conyers should just resign, something that Comstock voiced agreement for Sunday, citing how swiftly some high-profile media titans have fallen.
"We have to have the same kind of standards," she said.
Speier, however, said the House Ethics Committee should add staff to handle the Conyers case "very swiftly" to determine the severity of the allegations. "If they're accurate, I do believe that Congressman Conyers should step down," she said.
But Pelosi would not say whether she would ask Conyers to at least temporarily step aside from his leadership position, something she has asked other lawmakers embroiled in ethics scandals to do while the investigations are ongoing.
"I'm not sharing that with you right now," she said on Meet the Press.
The Democratic leader also suggested that Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., was in a different place amid allegations against him, in part because one of his alleged victims has publicly accepted his apology. Franken was accused of forcibly kissing an entertainer on a 2006 USO tour before he joined the Senate, and since then several other women have suggested Franken groped them while posing for pictures.