WASHINGTON — The national reckoning over sexual harassment swept through Congress on Thursday as Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., announced plans to resign over sexual misconduct allegations.
The House Ethics Committee also announced that it is launching an investigation into a third lawmaker, Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold, who used taxpayer dollars to pay an $84,000 sexual harassment settlement to a former aide several years ago.
Thursday's resignations — affecting a liberal Democrat and a Tea Party-aligned Republican — reflect the rapid pace of powerful men being held to account for alleged past sexual misconduct in the months after dozens of women claimed sexual abuse by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Another lawmaker, Michigan Democrat John Conyers, retired Tuesday from the House seat he had held for more than five decades over sexual harassment claims.
On Thursday, Franken, a two-term senator and former Saturday Night Live star, announced his plans to resign after more than a half dozen women came forward over the past several weeks with allegations that he touched them improperly or made unwanted sexual advances.
In an emotional speech from the Senate floor, Franken disputed some of the accusations and suggested he is being held to a different standard than President Trump.
“I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” said Franken, referring to Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. Moore has been accused of having inappropriate sexual contact with teenage girls when he was in his 30s; Moore has denied any wrongdoing.
Hours after Franken's announcement, Franks, an eight-term Arizona Republican, said he was resigning after the House Ethics Committee announced it was opening an investigation into sexual harassment allegations.
Franks said he had discussions "of surrogacy" with two of his "previous female subordinates" as he and his wife sought to have a third child. A surrogate delivered Franks' two older children.
"I deeply regret that my discussion of this option and process in the workplace caused distress," he wrote. He said he planned to leave Congress on Jan. 31.
Franks said he feared he would not receive a "fair" ethics investigation "before distorted and sensationalized versions of this story would put me, my family, my staff and my noble colleagues in the House of Representatives through a hyperbolized public excoriation."
In a statement, the office of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he told Franks to resign last week after confronting him with "credible claims" of misconduct and told Franks he would forward the case to the ethics panel.
Ryan's office said the complaint was lodged with the ethics committee last Friday, and Ryan accepted Franks' letter of resignation Thursday. "The speaker takes seriously his obligation to ensure a safe workplace in the House," the statement read.
“It is extraordinary that the story that started about a movie producer has hit Capitol Hill in a big way, from investigation to involuntary resignations; and this is just the start of it," Julian Zelizer, American political history professor at Princeton University, told USA TODAY on Thursday evening.
"It’s unclear where this all goes," he said. "If this doesn’t ultimately turn into a story about changing the rules … we’ll be here again in 10 years. But all of this is very unsettling right now, particularly with Roy Moore’s election looming over the horizon.”
Legislation pending in Congress would require members of Congress to settle sexual harassment claims with their own money and the existence of the settlement would be made public.
Under the current rules, taxpayers pay the settlements and victims are generally barred from discussing the case.
The House Ethics Committee announced late Thursday that it was establishing an investigative subcommittee into Farenthold's conduct and his taxpayer-funded settlement with a former aide, Lauren Greene.
Back in 2015, the Office of Congressional Ethics investigated Greene's allegations. It told the House Ethics Committee that it "did not find substantial reason to believe that Representative Farenthold engaged in the alleged conduct." But the committee has now decided to reopen the case.
Contributing: Jessica Estepa