Democrat Kihuen hanging on despite harassment claim

 In Politics

Ruben Kihuen is pictured. | Getty Images

Rep. Ruben Kihuen is accused of sexually harassing a campaign staffer during the 2016 election. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi won’t call for a primary challenger to take on Nevada Rep. Ruben Kihuen, despite saying the freshman Democrat should resign due to sexual harassment allegations.

“This is not about politics. That’s the last thing this is about,” Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday in response to questions about Kihuen, who has rejected demands from party leaders to step down.

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The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not respond to requests for comment on whether it would fund a primary challenger against Kihuen. The campaign arm has, however, removed Kihuen from its “frontline” program, which prioritizes funding for vulnerable members.

But beyond those steps, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have not maneuvered to force out Kihuen as they did with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who resigned Tuesday after a concerted behind-the-scenes effort. That could change, Democratic aides say, if more allegations crop up. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is also divided on how to handle the issue.

Kihuen is accused of sexually harassing a campaign staffer during the 2016 election. The woman told BuzzFeed Kihuen repeatedly propositioned her romantically and touched her thighs twice without asking. Kihuen has previously denied the allegations; his office declined to comment on the record for this story.

Congressional leaders have struggled to articulate uniform parameters for addressing sexual harassment allegations within their ranks, even as a raft of accusations continue to shake up Capitol Hill.

“We have a responsibility to uphold the dignity of the House of Representatives,” Pelosi said Thursday when asked whether the new standard is to call for resignation any time a member is accused of sexual harassment. “We want to protect the rights of the accused but we want to make sure that the victims have the opportunity they need to come forward.”

Pelosi didn’t call for Conyers — the longest-serving member of the House and a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus — to resign until several days after the allegations surfaced. Kihuen, meanwhile, was told to resign just hours after accusations were leveled against him.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) also faced questions Thursday about why he said Conyers should resign but not Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas, who used $84,000 in taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment claim with a staffer in 2014.

Ryan defended his decision, citing a letter from the Office of Congressional Ethics that said “there is not substantial reason” to believe Farenthold sexually harassed his former aide, Lauren Greene. The House Ethics Committee now wants to interview Greene about the accusations.

“We’ve got to figure out how do we make sure all of these claims are respected and honored, that there is a system of due process and that there are standards that are being met,” Ryan said.

But some lawmakers say that opens the door to a dangerous double standard that could be applied to members based on their party, popularity or even race. Congressional Black Caucus members were particularly vocal about what they saw as a double standard being applied in the Conyers case, when they said white men, including Farenthold, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore, didn’t face the same pressure to step down. Ultimately, Franken’s Democratic colleagues did pressure him to resign on Thursday after he faced sexual harassment allegations from seven women, with all but one of the incidents allegedly occurring before he was elected to the Senate in 2009.

“How do you say this particular alleged act of harassment is less harassing than another act? You can’t split those hairs,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in an interview. “Is Farenthold’s behavior like Kihuen and like my other colleague? If we are saying they’re both powerful accusations, why different standards of both judgment and penalty?”

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