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Senators Reach Deal On Sexual Harassment Legislation

The U.S. Capitol is pictured at dusk in Washington, D.C., in July 2011.
Jewel Samad
AFP/Getty Images
The U.S. Capitol is pictured at dusk in Washington, D.C., in July 2011.

Updated on May 23 at 10:10 a.m. ET

Senate negotiators have released legislation to overhaul policies for handling sexual harassment complaints in Congress, including requirements that lawmakers be held personally liable for some financial settlements.

The bill would require lawmakers to repay any awards and settlements that stem from acts of harassment they personally commit—including members who leave office. It would also require the public release of settlements and awards, even if the funds are fully reimbursed to the U.S. Treasury.

Staff who submit harassment complaints would no longer be subject to mandatory counseling, mediation and "cooling-off" phases and could immediately pursue either mediation or an administrative hearing or civil action in federal district court.

The sweeping re-write follows months of negotiations between Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who launched the talks following a string of accusations against members of Congress. Senate leaders have not committed to a timeline for voting on the bill. Klobuchar says she expects a vote in the full Senate after lawmakers have time to review the bill.

"We have taken this very seriously," Klobuchar said following a weekly closed-door party meeting. "We will be, hopefully, passing a very strong bill with the members' support out of the United States Senate."

The legislation would also extend protections to interns and other unpaid staff and assign dedicated advocates to "provide consultation and assistance" throughout the process.

The announcement comes months after the House unanimously passed its own measure to update the existing 23-year-old law that dictates how Congress handles harassment claims. Lawmakers have been under intense pressure to update their policies following several high-profile claims from staffers that harassment complaints were mishandled in recent years.

Under those rules, staffers who allege harassment are currently required to complete a 30-day counseling period and a separate mediation which also typically lasts about 30 days. They must then wait through a lengthy "cooling off" period before filing a lawsuit or filing for administrative relief.

Members of both parties criticized the current system after a series of recent complaints, including those that led to the resignation of Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Reps. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and John Conyers, D-Mich, among others.

The Treasury Department spent $174,000 to settle claims of sexual harassment and sex discrimination arising in House member offices from 2008-2012, according to a December report by The Washington Post.

The House bill would streamline the complaint process and require lawmakers facing harassment complaints to pay for settlements out of their own pockets.

Blunt said the Senate measure improves on the House bill and Klobuchar told reporters that it will have personal liability requirements like the House but declined to provide specifics.

Klobuchar defended the lengthy review process in the Senate saying it was important to give senators plenty of time to review the proposal before a vote is scheduled in the full Senate.

"We've done everything we can to be strong here," Klobuchar said. "I think the fact that we took a few months and looked at this will make for a stronger bill."

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Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.