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Some Democrats now regret calling on Franken to resign amid sexual misconduct allegations

Senate Judiciary Committee members Al Franken (D-Minn.), center left, and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) have a discussion on March 22, 2017.
Senate Judiciary Committee members Al Franken (D-Minn.), center left, and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) have a discussion on March 22, 2017. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Former senator Al Franken’s admission this week that he regretted his decision in 2017 to resign amid misconduct allegations has again shown a sensitive rift within the Democratic Party, as it continues to wrestle with balancing due process for the accused with defending the rights of assault victims in the #MeToo era.

On Dec. 6, 2017, about three dozen Democratic senators in rapid succession called on Franken (D-Minn.) to step aside — wearied by a growing wave of allegations after Leeann Tweeden, a model and broadcaster, first accused the senator of forcibly kissing her during a rehearsal for a USO tour in 2006.

But several Democratic senators have since struggled with their role in pushing out one of the party’s most prominent and popular figures in the face of more than half a dozen accusations that Franken had touched women inappropriately or forcibly kissed them, both before and during his tenure in the Senate. 

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, said in an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday that he would not have called for Franken’s resignation as long as he was given prompt proceedings before the Senate Ethics Committee. He recalled that senators were “pressed to make a quick decision and unfortunately did it at the expense of due process.”

“I certainly would have said that we should turn to due process,” Durbin said. “He deserved his day before the Ethics Committee, and his accuser the same. I think that would’ve been a more thoughtful outcome.”

Some Democratic senators have felt uneasy about Franken’s ouster since his resignation. But their discomfort became public this week — on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail — following a report in the New Yorker that quoted seven current or former Democratic senators who had expressed regret about demanding that Franken resign.

Franken also told the magazine that he “absolutely” regrets his decision to step aside. 

Other Democratic senators, in Post interviews this week, suggested having conflicting emotions about how the situation unfolded, although they had joined the cavalcade of calls for the senator’s resignation at the time. 

“I guess I’d just say that in retrospect, the whole situation could’ve been handled better,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.). 

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), a member of the Democratic leadership, declined to answer directly whether she would make the same resignation call now that she made in 2017. 

“I think Al’s a terrific guy and, you know, it was a tough moment,” she said. “I think at this point, I would just prefer to . . . would love to have seen him be able to get due process I know he was looking for, but at the same time, it was a very difficult moment.” 

The controversy surrounding Franken has also placed new scrutiny on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), who was the first Democratic senator to call on him to resign and who has borne the brunt of the internal party backlash, especially during her presidential bid.

On Monday evening, Gillibrand said she still has “no regrets” about her decision. 

“There was 34 other senators that called on him to resign,” she told reporters after an event in Manhattan held by the Bustle Digital Group. “You wouldn’t know that today, given I seem to stand alone. But I could not stay silent. I could not defend his actions. And to somehow blame me for a man’s action and a man’s decision, it’s pretty absurd.”

Five other senators vying for the Democratic presidential nomination — Sens. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) — had demanded Franken’s resignation as well. 

Bennet, Booker, Harris and Warren, through aides, said Tuesday that they still stand by their call. A spokesman for Sanders did not respond to a request for comment. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), who is also running for president, did not call on Franken to resign at the time, although she said then that it was the “right decision.” 

Klobuchar, at a Post Live event on Monday, took a slightly different tone.

“I did not call for him to step down publicly, but I did condemn his behavior,” she said. “But I felt strongly that it should go through the ethics process, that that was the right place for it to go.”

Asked on the campaign trail Monday for his thoughts about Franken in the wake of the New Yorker article, former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.), who is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said the decision to leave the Senate was ultimately Franken’s.

“I think he made the right decision and I respect that,” O’Rourke told CBS News. “I think our opportunity now is to focus on the future, not to go backward and re-litigate past decisions.”

In early June, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., diverged from others in the Democratic field by saying he “would not have applied that pressure at that time before we knew more,” referring to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and other Democrats who prodded Franken toward resignation. 

Schumer, in a statement offered this week through a spokesman, called Franken’s decision the “right” one — “for the good of the Senate and the good of the country.” 

The allegations against Franken unfolded while Democrats were locked in a heated fight for a Senate seat in Alabama. Roy Moore, the Republican nominee, faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls in the 1970s. He lost to Democrat Doug Jones.

The pressure was particularly acute for female Democratic senators, who had been privately discussing the allegations for weeks and led the resignation calls.

“I don’t regret doing it,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said this week. “You know, men should stop behaving badly. And men should be asked, ‘Why do you guys keep doing this kind of BS?’ They should be asked that.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the highest-ranking female senator in either party, stressed that “of course” she still stands by her decision, adding: “It was a number of allegations and we are where we are.”

 Those female senators weren’t alone in that view. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said his mind has not changed, either. 

“It was a very, very difficult decision,” he said. “What was especially important to me were the voices of the women in the Senate.”

John Wagner and Amy B Wang contributed to this report.