As the Senate has wrestled in recent days with sexual misconduct allegations against Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, an uncomfortable reality lingered over Capitol Hill: Lawmakers have yet to complete their own promised overhaul of sexual discrimination and harassment rules for Congress.
Earlier this year, both chambers passed their own versions of legislation designed to toughen sexual harassment policies on Capitol Hill after multiple representatives resigned over taxpayer-funded settlements and accusations of sexual misconduct. Such charges drove one Democrat, Al Franken of Minnesota, from the Senate, as well as Representatives Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, Trent Franks of Arizona and Blake Farenthold of Texas, all Republicans, and John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, from the House.
But months later, lawmakers are still negotiating new accountability rules for members and protection for aides who come forward with claims of harassment.
Aides with knowledge of House-Senate negotiations expressed cautious optimism that lawmakers from both chambers can reconcile the two bills before new lawmakers take office after the November midterm elections.
But some of the sticking points — how an investigation into claims of harassment should be handled and the legislative definition of harassment, among others — echoed issues that gained new prominence in the divisive debate over the treatment of Judge Kavanaugh and the women who accused him of sexual misconduct.
“What our lawmakers don’t do matters as much as what they do,” said Anna Kain, a former Hill staffer for Representative Elizabeth Esty, a Connecticut Democrat, who came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against Ms. Esty’s chief of staff earlier this year.
Failing to move forward on the legislation, coupled with the majority support for Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination, she said, “sends a very strong message to everyone who works for them, dreams of working for them, or is a survivor of sexual assault, that it doesn’t matter.”
Legislation approved in 1995 set up a cumbersome process of reporting instances of harassment. A push to overhaul the legislation emerged in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the resignations of a number of members of Congress.
The House bill is widely seen as the tougher overhaul, with more accountability requirements for lawmakers, including guidelines for the repayment of taxpayer funds used to settle claims against elected officials and a provision for providing representation for the staff member making the claim. And while both bills would prevent lawmakers from using taxpayer funds for harassment settlements, only the House bill also would bar the use of taxpayer money to settle discrimination suits — a difference one senior Republican congressional aide said was a sticking point in the negotiations.
“I think the Senate made a calculation that they could pass whatever they wanted and send it back,” Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who is a lead sponsor of the House bill, said in an interview. “I think they miscalculated the strength of the bipartisan support for this legislation.”
For some advocates, there are additional concerns about bureaucratic delay on another front: the Violence Against Women Act — a 1994 law passed in the aftermath of the Anita Hill hearings — has only been reauthorized through December.
“We feel like Congress just kicked the can down the road for three months,” said Terri Poore, the policy director for the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence.
The reauthorization, which was attached to a stopgap spending bill, maintains funding for investigations into cases of domestic violence and resources for survivors. But the once-overwhelmingly bipartisan legislation became the object of increasing debate as advocacy groups began lobbying for expansion of its protections.
This year’s full reauthorization, sponsored by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, expands funding for educational programs, strengthens federal domestic violence-related gun laws and increases privacy protections across state lines. And while no Republicans have signed on to co-sponsor the bill, more than 40 Republican representatives signed a letter in support of the temporary renewal.
But in the aftermath of the temporary reauthorization last month, lawmakers are pressing for more debate over a long-term solution before Dec. 7, when the funding expires.
“There are provisions we need to change and to work on, but we are not afforded that opportunity,” Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa, said in a floor speech last month. “We are leaving services and programs that the American people rely upon open to partisan delay and political gerrymandering.”
Andrea G. Bottner, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and former official in the Office on Violence Against Women, described the act as “one of the most politically charged pieces of legislation” — and that it does need additions and reform.
“I look at the act, and I don’t want it to go away,” she said. “But I think there are issues where the oversight and some of the monitoring that goes on could be tightened, could be improved.”
But advocates say more immediate progress, on both legislative fronts, will reassure survivors that they have more defined support and protection.
“I know it’s not easy or comfortable or convenient and I know taking action often means putting everything on the line,” said Ms. Kain, the former Hill staffer. “But Dr. Blasey Ford found a way to do it, and we found a way to do it, and we weren’t elected to office.
“I know it’s difficult,” she added, “but some moral courage would be nice.”