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Mitch McConnell says sexual harassment legislation could still get through Congress this year

It’s been nearly a year since Congress started working on sexual harassment legislation. It could finally become law.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) Speaks To The Media Day After Midterm Elections
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Legislation aimed at how Congress addresses sexual harassment was first proposed last winter — as a deluge of lawmakers, including Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), Blake Farenthold (R-TX) and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) were swept up in #MeToo scandals. Almost a year later, it’s still unclear whether it’s going to become law anytime soon.

At first, momentum for such bills was strong. Over time, however, differences between the House and Senate’s approach to the issue have since stymied a final version in its tracks. Both chambers have now passed their own bills on the subject, but they’ve continued to struggle to negotiate the differences between the two.

Members of the House have argued that the Senate approach didn’t go far enough to protect potential victims, compared to the one the lower chamber green-lit earlier this year. One particular sticking point centers on just how liable lawmakers are for different kinds of allegations, with the Senate bill holding them liable for settlements related to harassment, while the House version also requires them to cover settlements tied to cases of discrimination.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently reopened the possibility that the legislation could still move forward before 2019, a development that was beginning to look doubtful.

“We’re working on getting that done before the end of the year,” he said during a weekly press conference on Wednesday, noting that he had spoken with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) — one of the Senate co-sponsors alongside Roy Blunt — earlier this week about advancing the bill.

As Vox’s Jane Coaston reported, the Senate’s version of the legislation was approved in May and included a series of measures intended to address flaws in the Congressional Accountability Act:

The legislation eliminates mandatory “cooling off” periods before victims of harassment can file complaints against their harassers, doubles the length of time victims have to file a lawsuit in federal court, and requires members of the Senate to pay back the Treasury for any settlements related to the harassment they committed.

Currently, if a congressional staffer is harassed, the Office of Compliance initiates a four-step process: a 30-day counseling period, a mediation effort, an administrative hearing or civil action (a lawsuit), and an appeals process. Victims can’t even make a formal complaint about sexual harassment until three months have passed, including a 30-day period after enduring a mediation process with their harasser.

Lawmakers still have to reconcile the discrepancies between the House and Senate bills if they want the legislation to advance in the coming month, though there’s not much leeway for them to wrangle before time in the current term runs out. With the holidays rapidly approaching, there are only a few weeks to go before a new Congress takes over in January. It’s possible, however, that lawmakers could hitch a version of the bill onto an appropriations package that needs to get through after funding runs out on Dec. 7.

Klobuchar had previously said she was interested in getting a sexual harassment bill to President Donald Trump’s desk by this past summer. The end of the year looks like it could be the new deadline.