The political future of Congress's longest-serving member, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), appeared precarious Wednesday as Democratic leaders and some female lawmakers pressured him to resign over allegations that he had sexually harassed multiple female aides.
At the same time, members of the Congressional Black Caucus refused to publicly call for Conyers’s resignation, underscoring the tensions among Democrats over whether the 88-year-old should step down.
After a meeting of House Democrats, Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.) and Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) huddled in an adjoining basement conference room. Emerging an hour later, Richmond would not say whether his caucus would call for Conyers to resign his seat.
Both Richmond and Clyburn responded abruptly when reporters noted that other prominent men accused of harassment — such as NBC’s Matt Lauer and CBS’s Charlie Rose — were fired or stepped down from their positions faster than Conyers.
“Who elected them?” Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, said as he and Richmond boarded an elevator.
Conyers, who has denied wrongdoing, flew back to Detroit from Washington on Tuesday night without explanation. His attorney, Arnold Reed, said CBC members were not pressuring him to resign in a meeting that took place on Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon.
“The tenor of the meeting was to discuss how he was doing, how he was handling things. . . . They are not trying to force him to resign,” Reed said late Tuesday. “We will be having a conversation about the allegations and how we move forward. It may be tomorrow, it may be the next day, but it will occur.”
Sexual harassment and a forthcoming House vote over workplace behavioral training consumed discussion at House Democrats’ weekly closed-door caucus meeting, according to multiple people present or familiar with the conversation. While nobody in the room called for Conyers to resign, lawmakers discussed workplace issues facing Capitol Hill, including how congressional offices field, investigate and settle complaints of harassment and discrimination.
Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), one of the few Democrats who has publicly called for Conyers to resign, left the conference meeting early, saying leaders focused on a proposal to require sexual harassment training but did not grapple with the Conyers issue.
“Let’s talk about the big elephant in the room,” said Rice. “I don’t have time for conversations that are not real, that are not going to advance the ball.”
A Democratic aide with knowledge of the meeting said that Rice did not speak before leaving and that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested party members meet separately to discuss harassment.
Rice, meanwhile, suggested that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) could advance the debate if he allowed a Conyers accuser bound by a confidentiality agreement to go public. “I’m calling on the speaker, who clearly has the power, to release her from her nondisclosure agreement,” Rice said. “We can’t say we stand for victims as a body if we hold her to a confidentiality agreement that allows her accuser — her abuser — to talk about her but leaves her in the lurch.”
Few other Democrats, and few Republicans, have called on Conyers to resign ahead of an investigation launched by the House Ethics Committee.
Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), the party’s conference chairman, told reporters that Conyers was probably talking to family and constituents in Detroit to figure out his next move. But Crowley and vice chair Rep. Linda T. Sánchez (D-Calif.) refused to call on Conyers to quit, saying that a rush to judgment was not the way to handle harassment complaints.
“I’ve seen cases where the allegations don’t have merit. We need a fair process,” Sanchez said. “ . . . You don’t want character assassinations.”
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said that the entire conversation was “complicated” and that each accusation was going to play out differently.
“This man has done good things, and that’s part of the problem,” said Dingell. “Good men have done good things but at the same time have used their positions of power to assault women.”
Conyers has become the focus of debate over sexual harassment in Congress as decades of misconduct and a pattern of secret settlements between lawmakers and staff members come to light.
While he has insisted he will not resign, the veteran lawmaker stepped down as ranking Democrat of the House Judiciary Committee on Sunday. The move was seen as a concession to critics who said Conyers should no longer occupy such a powerful perch as allegations against him mount.
Asked Wednesday whether Conyers should resign, Ryan declined to say.
“Look, I know what I would do if this happened to me,” Ryan said at a news conference. “I will leave it up to him to decide what he wants to do. I think he made the right decision in stepping down from his leadership position.”
Conyers was not spotted at votes Tuesday evening, where members of the CBC held a rare huddle on the House floor.
Conyers’s seniority and participation in the civil rights movement have given some colleagues pause about calling for his resignation. Pelosi called him “an icon” on Sunday talk shows, only to face immediate criticism from women’s rights advocates and others.
"I don't think we should rush to judgment on decisions," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. "It's his decision to make, and I would look forward to him at some point making that decision."
A report published Tuesday in the Detroit News could make it harder for Conyers to defy calls to resign. The paper reported that Deanna Maher, who worked for Conyers between 1997 and 2005, said he propositioned her once and inappropriately touched her twice.
Multiple allegations have surfaced since last week, when BuzzFeed reported that Conyers reached a financial settlement in 2015 with a former employee who said she was fired for refusing his sexual advances.
In court documents filed earlier this year, another woman, Maria Reddick, accused Conyers of harassing her while she worked as his scheduler.
And in an interview with The Washington Post, a well-known lawyer specializing in congressional ethics accused Conyers of harassing and verbally abusing her when she worked for him in the 1990s.
On Tuesday, Judiciary Committee member Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said Conyers must resign given the pattern of misconduct alleged by former aides.
“This is a watershed moment where, finally, the country seems to be waking up and realizing we need to have a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment,” she said in a statement.“ I believe these women, I see the pattern, and there is only one conclusion: Mr. Conyers must resign.”
Mike DeBonis and Kimberly Kindy contributed to this report.