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The #MeToo movement roils Capitol Hill as more allegations are made public

Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), center, said he plans to retire next year after it was reported he settled a harassment complaint with a former female employee. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The public reckoning over sexual misconduct has ended the congressional careers of eight lawmakers, with Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) the latest to declare he will not seek reelection after it was revealed that he settled a harassment claim with a decades-younger aide.

Meehan, a four-term congressman from the Philadelphia suburbs, has denied wrongdoing in his behavior toward the longtime staffer, who said that he acted belligerently after she did not accept his romantic overtures last year. She said that the situation ultimately caused her to leave her job.

The cascade of resignations and retirements, which began in October, reveals the powerful influence of the #MeToo movement on Capitol Hill. For decades, lawmakers benefited from a system designed to protect them from the political and professional consequences of staffers' allegations, primarily by keeping the cases secret from leaders and the public.

Of the eight lawmakers who faced career-ending allegations, four have resigned. The other four will remain in their seats until early next year, allowing them to exercise influence on legislation and enjoy the perks of office for another 11 months.

Those perks include sitting in the House chamber next week for the first State of the Union address by President Trump, who has faced few repercussions from his own sexual misconduct allegations.

As dozens of women in the audience wear black in protest of sexual harassment and misconduct, they will not only hear from an alleged offender at the dais — they'll sit with at least four others.

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Meehan's settlement and alleged misconduct were first reported a week ago by the New York Times.

"I intend to keep fighting for my constituents until the end of my term," he wrote Thursday in a letter to his campaign chairman that was obtained by The Washington Post.

"The representation of a region like ours requires judgment, heartfelt empathy and political courage," he added.

Meehan's decision to remain in his seat through next year will allow him and three other lawmakers in the same situation to vote on measures pertaining to sexual misconduct.

Next week, House lawmakers are expected to approve a measure to change the system for reporting and adjudicating claims of workplace misconduct on Capitol Hill, which has been criticized as biased against victims.

In the wake of the sexual abuse scandal engulfing USA Gymnastics, the House will also take up legislation mandating that sports' national governing bodies promptly report suspicions of such abuse to law enforcement agencies.

Last year, just a few weeks after he sent his aide an affectionate note signed "with all of my heart," Meehan spoke on the House floor in favor of a previous version of the sports bill, saying it would benefit young people whose vulnerability is exploited by a coach or coach-like figure.

"It's not just situations like coach and athlete," he said. "All kinds of trusting relationships can create a dynamic."

Reps. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), Joe Barton (R-Tex.) and Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.), along with Meehan, have faced allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct in the past three months and plan to retire in 2019.

Until then, several will retain critical committee slots.

Meehan remains on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. He was removed from the House Ethics Committee, which had added his name to the list of lawmakers it is investigating for misconduct.

Barton continues to serve as vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, another influential panel with broad jurisdiction.

And Farenthold, who was accused of harassment as early as late 2014, leads the House Oversight subcommittee on the interior, energy and environment.

In Omro, Wis., this week, conservative Rep. Glenn Grothman (R) said he thought Meehan should step down.

"Hopefully, he will be headed out really quickly," Grothman said Thursday morning. "You can't force him out, but I know [House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.)] stripped him of one of his committees, and so hopefully he's on the way out."

The problem of misconduct is already emerging in candidates' rhetoric ahead of special elections and the 2018 midterms.

Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement Thursday that he was "disappointed by the circumstances" that prompted Meehan's decision, but thanked him for his "dedication to his district."

Virginia state Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton (D-Loudoun), who is running to unseat Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) in Northern Virginia, demanded Friday that Comstock repay $8,000 that Meehan had contributed to her campaign.

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A former prosecutor running for attorney general of Michigan released a tongue-in-cheek video ad selling voters on the fact she is not a man.

"When you're choosing Michigan's next attorney general, ask yourself this: Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting? Is it the candidate who doesn't have a penis? I'd say so," Dana Nessel said during the spot, released in late November.

And Marine Corps veteran Conor Lamb, the Democrat running to replace former congressman Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), has cited his work prosecuting sexual abuse cases in the military as he pitches himself to voters.

Murphy, an antiabortion lawmaker, resigned his seat after it was revealed that he asked his mistress to have an abortion. He is one of four lawmakers who recently departed Congress after facing allegations of misconduct; the others were former senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) and former congressmen John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Trent Franks (R-Ariz.).

Meehan's settlement with his former aide was paid through his office budget, one method that lawmakers have used to hide such agreements. Other settlements are negotiated through the Office of Compliance and paid out of a special fund that the Treasury Department oversees.

That fund has supplied about $365,000 for 21 settlements involving claims of sex discrimination or harassment against members' offices since 1996, according to data released Friday by the House Administration Committee. Eight of the settlements with a total cost of about $72,000 took place between 1996 and 2002, the period for which the latest tranche of data was released.

Paul Kane and David Weigel contributed to this report.

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