Washington (AFP) - The US Congress returned to Washington Monday after the Thanksgiving break determined to tackle sexual harassment within its ranks, following a string of allegations targeting sitting lawmakers.
Comedian-turned-Democratic-senator Al Franken, under scrutiny over multiple allegations of misconduct, offered a fresh apology as he arrived on Capitol Hill, while veteran Democrat John Conyers has stepped down from a leadership position over similar claims.
Compounding the discomfort on Capitol Hill, President Donald Trump -- who himself has faced multiple accusations of harassment -- has doubled down on his support for Roy Moore, the embattled Republican Senate candidate from Alabama who stands accused of molesting or harassing teenage girls as young as 14.
As Washington began coming to grips with the extent of the problem in its midst, following broader revelations of endemic sexual harassment in Hollywood and the media, Congress has taken steps to right a listing ship.
The Senate recently approved a resolution calling for mandatory anti-harassment training for all senators and staff. The House of Representatives votes on a similar measure this week.
With fresh allegations targeting two unnamed lawmakers, a congresswoman introduced a House bill that would overhaul the antiquated process for filing sexual harassment complaints in Congress 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 more than 260 settlements since 1997.
But under current rules, accusers are required to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to initiate complaints, and any financial settlement reached is secret and paid for by US taxpayers.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier's ME TOO CONGRESS Act would do away with such requirements, and force a lawmaker who settles a harassment claim to repay the government for the amount of the award.
"This is not a victim-friendly process," Speier, herself a victim of harassment as a young congressional staffer, told ABC Sunday, referring to the existing system.
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."
- 'No magic words' -
On Monday, Senator Franken returned to Washington to face the scrutiny of his colleagues -- including fellow Democrats who have long called out the president over the allegations of misconduct levied against him.
Franken 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 their buttocks inappropriately.
"I know that I have let a lot of people down," Franken told reporters outside his office in Congress. "To all of you, I just want to again say I am sorry.
"I know there are no magic words that I can say to regain your trust and I know that's going to take time. I'm ready to start that process and it starts with going back to work today."
Long a darling of the political left, Franken previously described a photograph that appeared to show him groping Tweeden's breasts while she was asleep in body armor, as "inexcusable" -- but has also insisted he would not leave the Senate.
Democratic leader Pelosi has also been forced to contend with one of her party's major figures, congressman Conyers, who stands accused of sexually harassing staff members.
Targeted by a House Ethics Committee investigation, the 88-year-old Conyers, the longest-serving lawmaker currently in Congress, has left his post on the leadership of the Judiciary Committee.
"No matter how great an individual's legacy, it is not a license for harassment," Pelosi tweeted.
For Republicans, the broader debate on harassment is tied up with the allegations targeting Moore, who has refused to exit his Senate race despite the accusation he assaulted several teenaged girls.
The leadership of Trump's Republican Party has withdrawn support for Moore, as have a number of senators, but the president himself has redoubled his support for the former Alabama judge.
Trump tweeted Sunday that "the last thing" Republicans need in the closely divided Senate is a Democrat like Moore's rival Doug Jones, who he described as "WEAK" on crime, immigration, gun rights and tax reform.