A majority of Senate Democrats on Wednesday called for the resignation of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) after determining that they could no longer tolerate his presence in their midst as a growing number of women accused him of sexual harassment.
They turned on one of their party’s most popular figures with stunning swiftness, led by the Senate’s Democratic women, who were joined in short order by more than half of the Democratic caucus.
“Enough is enough,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said at a news conference. “We need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is okay, none of it is acceptable. We as elected leaders should absolutely be held to a higher standard, not a lower standard, and we should fundamentally be valuing women. That is where this debate has to go.”
Franken’s office said he would make an announcement about his future on Thursday. Minnesota Public Radio reported Wednesday afternoon that Franken planned to resign, but Franken’s office quickly denied it on Twitter. “Not accurate,” the tweet stated. “No final decision has been made and the Senator is still talking with his family.”
If he steps down soon, a replacement would be appointed by Minnesota’s Democratic governor to serve until the 2018 election.
The drive to purge Franken, coming a day after Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) resigned under pressure in the House, was a dramatic indication of the political toxicity that has grown around the issue of sexual harassment in recent months.
It also stood as a stark — and deliberate — contrast with how the Republicans are handling a parallel situation in Alabama, where Roy Moore, their candidate for U.S. Senate in next week’s special election, is accused by women of pursuing them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.
Although most of the alleged actions took place before he was a senator, Franken was becoming a growing liability to his party, and Republicans had seized upon the allegations against him.
At Moore’s Tuesday night rally, conservative pundit Gina Loudon declared that Republicans did not need lectures on morality from Democrats who had struggled with their own sex scandals, and cited both Conyers and Franken.
President Trump, himself the target of multiple allegations of sexual assault, has enthusiastically endorsed Moore, and the Republican Party is once again pouring money into the race after pulling back. Leading Senate Republicans have also toned down their negative comments about Moore, saying his fate should be up to the voters of Alabama and — if he is elected — the Senate Ethics Committee.
“I’m looking for where are the Republican voices? Where is their outrage?” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said on CNN.
Republican leaders remained quiet amid the developments.
Asked about Franken, Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn (Tex.) said he would “leave it up to [Democrats] to deal with members of their own party.”
The move by Senate Democrats to oust Franken marked a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of the onetime “Saturday Night Live” star. The senator from Minnesota had emerged as one of the Trump administration’s sharpest foils on Capitol Hill — and as a potential 2020 presidential contender.
Over the past three weeks, more than a half-dozen women have accused Franken of unwanted advances and touching. He apologized, saying in some cases that he had not intended to give offense and in others that he did not recall events as the women did.
The latest allegation against Franken came in a report published Wednesday by Politico. A former congressional aide whose name was withheld by the publication claimed that Franken had tried to forcibly kiss her after a taping of his radio show in 2006, two years before his election to the Senate.
The woman claimed that Franken had told her, “It’s my right as an entertainer.”
Franken’s alleged offenses were arguably less serious than those attributed to Moore, or to Conyers, the longest-serving member of Congress, who was accused of demanding sexual favors from the women who worked for him. Until late last week, it appeared that Franken’s fellow Democrats would allow his case to work its way through the Senate Ethics Committee, a process that would take months and perhaps years to reach a resolution.
As recently as Nov. 26, Sen Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, had argued on CNN: “Al Franken has acknowledged what he did was wrong, and it was wrong. He has also submitted his whole case to the Senate Ethics Committee. I think that was the right thing to do. Let’s have a hearing, an investigation. Let’s let this really reach whatever conclusion it is going to reach, but through a due process.”
But on Wednesday, Durbin expressed no such forbearance. “Senator Franken’s conduct was wrong. He has admitted to it. And he should resign from the Senate.”
Even as Senate Democrats expressed support publicly for leaving Franken’s fate in the hands of the Ethics Committee, his female colleagues were increasingly unsettled as new accusers went public.
“People were at the edge of their patience with this. They’d had enough. One more allegation was going to be it,” said one senior aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations.
Another said female Democratic senators had been discussing it among themselves “on the Senate floor, even in the ladies’ room.”
“Many people have been talking about this for some time,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said. “It wasn’t coordinated. It just happened.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has served in the Senate longer than most of her female colleagues, said it was “significant that the women on his side of the aisle led the way” and added that she believed the latest allegation was “in some ways the final straw for people.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who had stood by his friend in the wake of the allegations, called Franken after the Politico story broke early Wednesday and told him directly he had to resign, according to a person familiar with the call, who added that this came before other senators began calling for him to step down.
Schumer also met with Franken and his wife at the leader’s apartment early afternoon to discuss resigning. The session ended without a firm commitment from Franken to do so, said the source, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the private exchange.
In recent days — before Wednesday’s report — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has known Franken for nearly two decades, had also told Franken he needed to step down, aides familiar with their discussions said. On Wednesday, Warren issued a short public statement, saying, “I think he should resign.”
Franken had staved off public calls for his ouster last week, according to a person who has been in touch with the senator and his staff in recent days.
There was a “mad rush” last week to call on Franken to resign when more allegations surfaced, said the person, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about private discussions. “I think that people were talked off the ledge at that point and wanted to recollect and figure out if the Senate Ethics investigation should just move forward.”
But, “I’m pretty sure that Al should have known that if there was another story that came out that there’d be a mass exodus away from him.”
Outside the chamber, growing numbers of Democrats had been making the case that it was untenable for Franken to remain in the Senate if their party hoped to maintain the high ground on the issue.
Among those calling for Franken to step down was Doug Jones, Moore’s Democratic opponent in Alabama.
And though she did not mention Franken by name, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had declared a policy of “zero tolerance” when she called last week for Conyers to leave the House. On Wednesday, Pelosi declared that she was “very proud of the fact that people are taking this matter head on and are trusting women who come forward, what they have to say.”
More and more lawmakers are saying their concern over sexual harassment allegations should not be overridden by politics, or by the respect they have for each other’s records and their shared positions on important policy matters.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) noted on Tuesday that her own efforts as a civil rights and immigration rights activist could not have succeeded without the early work of Conyers.
Despite that legacy, “I also hope that we can be clear about what our standard is for sexual harassment and make it very, very clear to every woman who is out there that you do not have to put up with this. It is not right, and most of us as women — I can tell you — know exactly what this has all been about,” she said. “We’ve all been through various forms of this and I think it’s essential that if people come to work in this body that they know that they have a safe environment. We have to be clear about that, whether it’s a Republican, a Democrat, someone we love or someone we find distasteful.”
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), seen as a future caucus leader in the House, said this week’s actions should serve as a warning to those who have been or may be accused of sexual wrongdoing.
“If you are a sexual harasser, go away. We don’t want you, we don’t want you as our colleague,” she said Wednesday. “Our interns don’t deserve that, our staff doesn’t deserve it. The women members of Congress don’t deserve it.”
“Everybody’s got to speak for themselves,” she added later, “but this is not a place to be a sexual harasser.”
David Weigel in Mobile, Ala., and Sean Sullivan in Washington contributed to this article.