House Democrats exited their weekly meeting Wednesday in a tense mood and with few answers after struggling with how to handle sexual misconduct allegations against Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the longest-serving member in the House.
Those tensions became clear during the meeting when Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., — one of the two House Democrats to call for Conyers to resign effective immediately — left the meeting early. She complained on the way out that harassment wasn’t being addressed adequately in the meeting.
“I don’t have time for meetings that aren’t real,” Rice said, according to reporters present when she left the meeting. Another House Democrat said Rice didn’t voice those frustrations in the meeting.
Conyers returned to Detroit Tuesday night after spending the day in Washington meeting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and members of the Congressional Black Caucus about his future in the House. Conyers is accused of sexually harassing three former staffers and verbally abusing a third.
Other Democrats who left the Wednesday meeting either ignored reporters or said they were disappointed with Conyers and how the allegations were being handled.
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., admitted “there was not enough discussion in there” about the sexual harassment problem sweeping Congress, but stopped short of saying Conyers should resign.
“What we have to figure out is how we change and make things transparent, nobody uses taxpayer money to settle a harassment charge, but at the same time we’re protecting somebody who needs to — it’s complicated, this is all very complicated,” Dingell told reporters after leaving the meeting.
“We need to move that ethics committee quickly and get the answers,” she added. “We cannot have a double standard.”
Since Monday, Pelosi has worked to get a handle on the situation concerning Conyers. She met with one of his accusers, sent a letter to the House Ethics Committee urging it to expedite its investigation, and offered help if additional resources are needed.
“She’s applying steady pressure,” said a senior Democratic aide, who added that the Congressional Black Caucus met with Conyers Tuesday to “lay out the case for Conyers to resign” while recognizing it’s ultimately his decision.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond D-La., said he had a “lengthy discussion” with Conyers before he returned to his district, but wouldn’t call on him to resign and said its his decision to make.
Democrats appear to be caught between their decision to come out forcefully on the issue of sexual harassment and assault, and their hesitation to move against one of their own.
When asked why leaders weren’t calling on Conyers to resign while harassers in Hollywood and the media have been immediately fired, Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., said, “calling for a resignation doesn’t create that resignation.”
When Richmond and Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., faced a similar question, Richmond asked for examples of people stepping down faster than Conyers. Given those examples, Clyburn then asked “who elected them?”
CBC Chair Richmond asks for ex. of ppl leaving jobs faster than Conyers when face sexual harassment claims; Clyburn asks "who elected them?" pic.twitter.com/FGDNbvBUcg— Alex Moe (@AlexNBCNews) November 29, 2017
One Democratic member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more freely, said the situation is “tough” for Democrats. This member said some wondered aloud in their weekly meeting why Pelosi came under intense criticism for calling Conyers and “icon,” but when news broke that TV journalist Matt Lauer was fired over sexual misconduct, his peers were allowed to express sadness and some praise and weren’t criticized for it.
Rep. Linda Sanchez, another member of House Democratic leadership, said she didn’t agree with Pelosi’s comments about Conyers over the weekend.
“Well, she’s entitled to her opinion; it’s not what I would have said,” said Sanchez, D-Calif.
But when pressed on whether they were ceding the moral high ground or why they wouldn’t just call for Conyers resignation outright, she hedged.
“It’s not for me to judge that at this point. I can’t know the specifics of what happened,” she said. “I’m not in a position to be able to judge that.”
“It’s a tough situation,” Sanchez said. “We’re at a turning point in this country where the way we treat these allegations has changed substantially.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., wouldn't say he believed the women who've accused Conyers, and instead said he's worried about the congressman's health given his age. "I read about a lot of people, I read about President Trump saying that he likes groping women," he said. "There are a lot of things you read and just like [Conyer's] situation I have no direct knowledge of any of the women so as far as I'm concerned Congressman Conyers — I went to him because I know him — he's a fraternity brother."
Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., chairman of the Democratic National Campaign Committee, said members who are guilty should face consequences but wouldn’t address the Conyers allegations despite being asked several times.
“As we see more and more members names coming forward there need to be actions taken, the members need to step down. anyone that is guilty of these issues that they don’t — they shouldn’t be serving in public office,” he said.
Asked if that meant Conyers should resign, Lujan dodged. “I'm saying across the board... Across the board as we look at where this exists this needs to be dealt with in an aggressive manner,” he said Tuesday.
Pressed on what "aggressive" meant, Lujan repeated himself, saying anyone guilty of harassment shouldn’t be in public office. Asked if he believed the women accusing Conyers, Lujan waved his hand at reporters as he walked away.