Politics

House Could Go Its Own Way on Sexual Harassment Policy, Says Pelosi

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the House could accept some of the Senate’s sexual harassment proposals and then tighten their own rules. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Nancy Pelosi has a plan to move forward on the proposals to overhaul sexual harassment policies on Capitol Hill before year’s end, but House Republicans say they’re still working on a strong compromise. Senators, meanwhile, are looking past negotiations and toward getting a final bill passed.

The House minority leader signaled Thursday that House negotiators may be willing to accept some of the Senate language that they’ve been rejecting for being less stringent. 

She said that if a compromise can be struck on policies for all of Capitol Hill, the House could enact additional policies for their own chamber focused on areas where members think joint legislation doesn’t go far enough.

“If it comes to a place that we’re pretty far down the road, but not as far as we want to go... that will be for the whole Congress,” said Pelosi. “We can take other action that applies to the House.”

The House and Senate proposals diverge on key issues, including the scope of liability for lawmakers and independent oversight of investigations.

“The bills were quite different, they were quite different. But now they’re coming closer together,” said Pelosi.

In recent months as the negotiations over the bills dragged on, House aides from both parties had said they would be unwilling to accept the Senate liability framework, viewing it as a weaker or watered-down version.

The House bill includes an expansive view of cases under which a member would be personally liable. The Senate version tightens the liability, making members responsible for all settlements related to their own sexual misconduct but not for other issues such as discrimination. The Senate bill would also cap lawmaker liability at $300,000 and would only hold members liable for “compensatory damages.”

The House proposal would require lawmakers to pay out of pocket for any sexual harassment or discrimination settlements, while the Senate plan would require lawmakers to pay only for settlements related to harassment, not discrimination — which often constitutes the bulk of misconduct claims.

The House took independent action on sexual harassment earlier this year, passing a resolution that required every House office to adopt an anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy and established the Office of Employee Advocacy to provide legal assistance and consultation services for House employees regarding harassment procedures. The resolution, which only governs the House, also required members to certify that employee payroll funds are not being used to pay any settlements or rewards in connection to prohibited behavior.

If the House bends to the will of the Senate in crafting a joint measure, it looks like the House will likely take solo action again to tailor policies just for one chamber.

“The reason we’d be willing to accept something less than we passed is that we then can pass bills ourselves that apply to the House, and I think that would put some pressure on the Senate to do the same,” said Pelosi.

House Republicans aren’t backing Pelosi’s strategy just yet.

House Administration Chairman Gregg Harper says that he’s still negotiating with the Senate to get a bill that both chambers can agree on.

“We are continuing to work with the Senate to produce the strongest legislation possible,” said  Harper.

Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., a former employment attorney who helped to write the House proposal, wants to see the House version through to the end.

“Congressman Byrne feels very strongly the House-passed version of the Congressional Accountability Reform Act is the right version,” said Byrne spokesperson Seth Morrow in a statement.

“If we cannot get all of those reforms done this Congress, [Byrne] is committed to working in the next Congress to finish this important work.”

The top two Senators on the Rules and Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation, are optimistic that a compromise will be cleared by the end of the year. But it won’t be moving by itself.

Lawmakers are now looking for a bill on which the compromise harassment legislation can hitch a ride to passage. The legislation would likely be attached to a must-pass bill that will move before year’s end.

“We have to get a vehicle to put it on,” said Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, the top Democrat on Senate Rules.

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