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Sexual Harassment Reckoning Roils Capitol

As Conyers flies home, leaders face uncomfortable questions

Rep. John Conyers Jr. is facing calls for his resignation amid sexual misconduct allegations. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. John Conyers Jr. is facing calls for his resignation amid sexual misconduct allegations. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The nationwide reckoning over sexual harassment claims continues to reverberate in the Capitol, as congressional leaders field uncomfortable questions about everyone from the Dean of the House to the president of the United States.

“Right now, we’re working on making sure this place works right,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan said at a Wednesday morning press conference when asked if members should be more vocal about sexual harassment claims made against President Donald Trump. 

As harassment claims against members like Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the longest serving member in Congress, and Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota continue to work through the congressional ethics process, it has refocused sexual misconduct claims against Trump that emerged during last year’s presidential race. 

Ryan did not take the bait, and returned to questions concerning Conyers, who temporarily stepped down from his position as ranking member of the Judiciary Committee and has flown home to his Detroit district as members pressure him to resign. 

Watch: Ryan Says Sexual Harassment Will Not Be Tolerated in Congress

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“I know what I would do if this happened to me,” Ryan said of Conyers, saying it’s up to him to decide his plans but he made the right decision in stepping aside from his leadership position.

Ryan said House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg Harper, a Mississippi Republican, is holding hearings and working on updates to the Congressional Accountability Act that would overhaul the process for complaints to be made and reviewed. The speaker declined to state his position on whether settlements should be made public by referring to that effort.

Harper said since he became chairman in January, he hasn’t had any settlements come before him for approval as is required.

Meanwhile, House Democrats continued to field questions about Conyers. 

“These are very, very serious allegations that have been put forth,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley of New York said of the allegations against Conyers. He avoided answering questions about whether Conyers should resign, saying the Ethics Committee investigation is under way. 

Watch: Democratic Leaders Decline to Call for Conyers to Resign

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House Democratic Conference Vice Chairwoman Linda T. Sanchez of California also avoided a question on whether Conyers should resign, talking instead about the “fruitful” conversation the Democratic Caucus had Wednesday about overhauling the process so that sexual harassment allegations can be raised in a way that is fair for both the complainant and the accuser.

“You don’t want character assassinations, nor do you want victims who don’t get their day in court,” she said.

Pushed on why they’re not publicly calling for Conyers’ resignation, Crowley said calling for the resignation of someone does not actually make it happen and referenced the Ethics Committee moving its investigation through an expedited process.

Sanchez said she can’t call for Conyers’ resignation unless she’s been party to hearing all the evidence, which she hasn’t.

The fact that there’s been more than one complainant come forward with allegations of Conyers “does heighten my sense” that there’s something there, she added.

“Mr. Conyers has gone back to his district. I can’t speak to what he’s doing, but I suppose he’s taking counsel from his family, his constituents,” Crowley said.

Congress, meanwhile, needs to focus on ensuring there’s a “platinum standard” when it comes to sexual harassment on the Hill, he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Congressional Accountability Act.

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