Franken 'sorry' as U.S. Congress targets harassment

WASHINGTON DC, USA (UPDATED) – An "ashamed" US senator said he would work to regain the people's trust Monday, November 27, after being accused of sexual misconduct, as Congress moved to root out harassment with allegations now targeting several sitting lawmakers.

Democrat Al Franken, a former comedian and darling of the political left, offered a fresh apology as he returned to Capitol Hill following the Thanksgiving break, a day after a veteran fellow Democrat, John Conyers, quit his leadership position over similar claims of misconduct.

Compounding the discomfort in Washington, President Donald Trump – who himself has faced harassment accusations – has doubled down on his support for Roy Moore, the embattled Republican Senate candidate from Alabama who stands accused of molesting teenage girls as young as 14.

But in a sign of the sensitivity surrounding Moore – whose candidacy has been disavowed by Republican Party leaders – the White House also said Trump would not be stumping for the controversial former judge.

The world of Washington politics has been rocked by allegations of harassment in its ranks, following broader revelations of endemic sexual misconduct in Hollywood and the media, and lawmakers returned from a week-long break determined to right a listing ship.

The Senate recently voted to make anti-harassment training mandatory for all senators and staff, while the House of Representatives votes on a similar measure this week.

With fresh allegations targeting two unnamed lawmakers, a congresswoman introduced a bill that would overhaul the antiquated process for filing harassment complaints to allow for greater transparency, accountability, and victim support.

The Congressional Office of Compliance acknowledged last week that it has paid victims over $17 million in settlements since 1997.

But under current rules, accusers are required to sign non-disclosure agreements to initiate complaints, and any financial settlement reached is secret and paid for by US taxpayers.

The bill introduced by congresswoman Jackie Speier, herself a victim of harassment as a young congressional staffer – would do away with such requirements, and force a lawmaker who settles such a claim to reimburse the government.

'No magic words'

Speier's legislation appears to have the support of top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who called for "an end to the days of secret settlements paid for by taxpayer dollars."

Franken returned to Washington to face the scrutiny of his colleagues – including fellow Democrats who have long called out Trump over the allegations of misconduct levied against him.

The comedian-turned-senator has apologized repeatedly after a sports broadcaster and former model, Leeann Tweeden, accused him of kissing her, and touching her without consent as she slept during a tour entertaining US troops deployed in Afghanistan.

Three women have since come forward to say Franken touched them inappropriately.

"I know that I have let a lot of people down," Franken said outside his Senate office. "To all of you, I just want to again say I am sorry."

But despite saying he feels "embarrassed" and "ashamed," and promising to cooperate with an ethics investigation, Franken has refused to resign.

"I know there are no magic words that I can say to regain your trust and I know that's going to take time," he said. 

With Franken's standing badly shaken, Democratic leader Pelosi has also been forced to contend with allegations against another major party figure, congressman Conyers, accused of sexually harassing staff members. 

Targeted by a House Ethics Committee investigation, Conyers, 88, has left his post on the Judiciary Committee leadership.

Pelosi called Conyers an American "icon," but she tweeted that "no matter how great an individual's legacy, it is not a license for harassment."

For Republicans, the broader debate is tied up with the allegations targeting Moore, who has refused to exit his Senate race despite accusations he pursued teen girls and sexually assaulted some of them.

Many Republican lawmakers have withdrawn support for Moore.

But the president himself has redoubled his backing for the former Alabama judge, saying "the last thing" Republicans need in the closely divided Senate is a Democrat like Moore's rival Doug Jones.

The White House though said Trump was "not planning any trip to Alabama" ahead of the December 12 election. 

'Malicious and false'

Moore meanwhile remained defiant, telling supporters Monday in northern Alabama that the allegations against him were "malicious and false attacks," according to Alabama media.

Senators returned to work sobered by the scandals.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said unwanted sexual contact was "prevalent" in Congress "on both sides of the aisle, and it needs to be fought and conquered."

Like Blumenthal, first-term Republican Senator John Kennedy said he wants to see the results of an ethics probe before determining punishment for Franken, or Moore should he win.

"But I don't have any sympathy for people who act like pigs," Kennedy said. –