Deal struck on sexual harassment legislation on Capitol Hill

Bill had been stalled for months on compromises

By SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN
Bob Kovach/CNN

(CNN) - House and Senate negotiators have struck a deal over long-stalled legislation to revamp the way sexual harassment complaints are made and handled on Capitol Hill, multiple congressional sources close to the process told CNN on Wednesday, likely assuring the bill's final passage this year.

The bill will reconcile the House- and Senate-passed versions into one bill that overhauls the Congressional Accountability Act, which set up and oversees how sexual harassment claims are handled and -- for the first time -- will hold lawmakers liable for paying harassment settlements from their own pockets, rather than using US taxpayer money as had been done in the past.

Senate negotiators will act first and will move this as a standalone bill, expected to pass by a unanimous consent agreement, as early as Thursday. That would send the bill to the House for its passage and then to the President Donald Trump's desk for his signature.

A House GOP leadership aide told CNN that when the Senate sends it to the House, members will pass it very quickly after. But it is still unclear whether final passage will happen this week.

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who's one of the chief negotiators of the sexual harassment bill, confirmed the deal was "done."

"I think the final hurdle was getting through the election and getting everyone here for more than one day at the same time," Blunt said. "Everybody will understand their personal liability and their personal responsibility and that will be a good thing."

In a statement Wednesday, Blunt and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said in a statement that the final bipartisan bill would "reform the dispute resolution process, protect workers, increase transparency and hold Members of Congress accountable."

The breakthrough comes more than a year since the #metoo wave hit Capitol Hill and just in the nick of time. Had Congress been unable to reach agreement before the end of the year, each chamber's legislation that passed earlier in the year would have expired.

The House passed its version in February. The Senate wrote its own bill, a vastly different version, in May and legislators have been working for the past seven months, in fits and starts, to compromise over the details.

Blunt called the deal "a good combination of the House and Senate bill."

The final proposed text of the bill, which CNN obtained from a source close to the negotiations, would streamline the process by eliminating the arduous process that included a 30-day counseling period, a 30-day mediation period and a 30-day "cooling off period" a staffer had to previously go through before they could even officially make a complaint.

According to the text of the bill, all settlements would be automatically referred to the ethics committees, maintained in a new electronic system for better record keeping, and made public, including the names of any personally liable members.

The legislation would provide legal counsel for House staff who file complaints, but not for Senate staff. For Senate staff, a legal advocate would be provided instead who could provide consultation and assistance but not counsel, according to the text.

However, the measure holds individual members personally liable for harassment and retaliation settlements only. It does not apply to other forms of discrimination such as gender discrimination or pregnancy discrimination, which the House-passed bill had included. So members, if held personally liable for discrimination, could still dip into US Treasury funds to settle those kinds of claims.

Asked about this Wednesday by CNN, Blunt downplayed personal liability for discrimination being left out.

"It really was always about harassment and individual activity and discrimination is much broader," Blunt said.

California Democrat Rep. Jackie Speier told CNN they will work to introduce a subsequent bill with all of the things they don't get into this bill, like personal liability as it applies to discrimination, at the beginning of the next Congress.

Klobuchar said the deal being reached after more than a year is "very rewarding."

"No one is above the law," Klobuchar said. "And that (is) whether it is for a crime or some kind of civil liability and I think that is a very important message to send."

This has been updated with additional developments.

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