The growing chorus of Democratic lawmakers calling on Sen. Al Franken to step down Wednesday opened up a dramatic partisan divide in how the two major parties are responding to their members and candidates accused of sexual harassment or abuse.
By the day’s end, 30 lawmakers — and well over half the Democratic Senate Caucus — had weighed in to say that Franken should resign. The comedian turned senator from Minnesota announced he’d hold a press conference Thursday morning and was widely expected to announce he was leaving his seat.
The pressure on Franken to step aside has an element of political calculation, as Democrats seek to create a contrast with support by President Trump and the Republican National Committee for Alabama’s Roy Moore, who has refused to give up his bid for the Senate despite allegations by numerous women that he sexually pursued or even molested them when they were in their teens. But it’s also because Democratic and independent voters take seriously sexual harassment accusations while Republican voters, according to surveys, are more skeptical of their importance.
A Quinnipiac survey released Tuesday found a 26-point gap between the parties on this issue. Asked if an elected official should resign if accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault by multiple people, 77 percent of registered Democrats but only 51 percent of registered Republicans (and 60 percent of independents) said yes.
That gap in part reflects the gender gap in party identification. Women are more likely to be Democrats, and Quinnipiac found that 74 percent of women but only 54 percent of men say that elected officials accused by multiple women should step down.
Eight women have accused Sen. Al Franken of groping or trying to cadge unwanted kisses. Multiple women also accused Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., of pressuring them for sexual favors in the workplace and work-related settings. Conyers, the only member of the House of Representatives whose tenure dates back to the 1960s, on Tuesday became the first federally elected official to step down in the recent wave of allegations. Freshman Rep. Ruben Kihuen of Nevada, a protégé of former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, also has been accused of harassing his 25-year-old campaign finance director; despite calls from Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to step aside, he’s indicated he has no plans to resign.
“Franken is entitled to the Senate ethics investigation process,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told reporters Wednesday, kicking off the day’s cascade of calls for his resignation from senators, but “it would be better for the country for him to offer that clear message that he values women, that we value women, and that this kind of behavior is not acceptable.”
Congress itself as an institution was, she said, ill-equipped “to do the kind of accountability the American people are searching for.”
“Public service demands higher standards — standards we choose to live by the moment we enter public life,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the third-ranking Democratic leader in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Moore pressed on with his campaign, this week drawing the robust support of Donald Trump and the renewed support of the Republican National Committee, which had cut ties to him after the charges first surfaced. “The president made that decision and he decided it was better to have somebody support his agenda than a Democrat that doesn’t,” said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Tuesday, explaining Trump’s reasoning.
A CBS News poll in the state found 71 percent of Republicans believed the allegations against Moore were false, with most blaming them on Democrats and the media. Alabama Republican supporters of Moore also backed Trump, who has himself been accused of unwanted sexual advances or assault by multiple women, at the rate of 96 percent.
And in the House, Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold, who reached an $84,000 settlement with former staffer Lauren Greene after she filed a sexual harassment and discrimination complaint in 2014, shows no signs of going anywhere. His now 30-year-old accuser, in contrast, has lost her job and is working $15 an hour temporary gigs and babysitting to meet ends meet.
Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have spoken out on the issue before today. “I had hoped that Judge Moore would resign, in other words, withdraw from the race. That obviously is not going to happen. If he were to be elected, I think he would immediately have an issue with the Ethics Committee,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Tuesday. Earlier he had suggested the Senate might not seat Moore, should he win.
In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan announced mandatory sexual harassment training for staffers and members in mid-November, “not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution.” The Senate passed a resolution in early November mandating the same training for all members, staffers and interns. Rep. Jackie Speier and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have introduced legislation seeking to overhaul how harassment complaints are handled.
After first calling him an “icon,” Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi changed her mind and called on Conyers to resign. “No matter how great the legacy, it is no license to harass or discriminate,” she said after he stepped down. [/restrict]