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WASHINGTON (AP) — Members of both parties are glum and guarded after a shocking week of resignations on Capitol Hill. But Democrats say the way they're handling the sexual misconduct issue will give them a valuable weapon for next year's congressional elections. Republicans say that's just wishful thinking.
No one knows when or where the allegations that have felled lawmakers, journalists and entertainers will end. The ax could well fall again in a Congress where the culture has long tolerated behavior that would trigger departures today.
For now, Democrats want voters to see a very bright line: They forced the liberal rising star Al Franken and civil rights veteran Rep. John Conyers to leave, while Donald Trump remains president and Alabama Republican Roy Moore could well be elected to the Senate next Tuesday.
"Democrats are now in a better position than ever to tie Donald Trump and Roy Moore around the necks of Republicans" running for Congress next year, said Jim Manley, a Democratic operative and former Senate aide.
Republicans are quick to contest that.
They argue that Trump was elected last year despite the election season release of a 2005 tape in which he described sexually offensive behavior, followed by accusations by several women of aggressive sexual misconduct. And they suggest Sen. Franken's departure was more politically bearable for Democrats because his home state of Minnesota has a Democratic governor who will appoint the temporary replacement.
"Do you think if Al Franken had a Republican governor they'd be doing this," asked Tom Davis, a GOP consultant and former Virginia congressman who chaired his party's House campaign committee.
While both Trump and Moore have faced and denied allegations, their political fortunes aren't likely to be damaged by the way the Democrats have handled Franken and Conyers.
What's important, Democrats say, is that the contrast heightens their chances of winning over female and suburban voters, pumping up donors and party activists and even recruiting women to run for Congress next year.
"Yes, we may lose some people that we liked quite a bit along the way," said Brian Fallon, senior adviser to the liberal group Priorities USA. He added, "In the long term, the party is better off doing right by women."
Moore has been accused of initiating sexual contact with teenage girls and pursuing dates with others when he was in his thirties during the 1970s. He has denied wrongdoing.
Trump — who backs Moore — planned a Friday evening political rally in Pensacola, Florida, about 20 miles from the Alabama state line.
On Thursday, in an extraordinary scene witnessed by teary-eyed colleagues and relatives, Franken told a wake-like Senate he was resigning. Two days earlier, it was the House's longest-serving member, John Conyers of Michigan, who quit. Both succumbed to pressure by leaders and colleagues after initially saying they'd fight to stay.
Republicans were taking action, too. Rep. Trent Franks quit Congress Friday, a day after House Speaker Paul Ryan said he'd told the conservative Arizonan to leave. A former Franks aide told The Associated Press that he repeatedly pushed her to carry his child, at one point offering her $5 million to act as a surrogate mother.
The issue of sexual misconduct is one that few lawmakers are eager to discuss. "I'm not happy to get to it, but I will get to that," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at a press conference Thursday when reporters pressed her on it.
Ryan, R-Wis., struggled Thursday to articulate a standard for forcing a lawmaker to resign over allegations of sexual impropriety.
"It's a really good question," Ryan said. He said accusations must be taken seriously and processed fairly, adding, "I want my daughter to grow up in a country, going into the workplace, where she's empowered and respected, and not fearful for reporting harassment when it occurs against her."
Capitol Hill's culture has long erred on the side of protecting lawmakers. In Washington, alcohol can flow, lawmakers are often separated from their wives, and they wield power over staffs typically composed mostly of ambitious young people. The mix can breed and abide bad behavior.
It took a lengthy investigation and an Ethics Committee expulsion vote to force Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood out for sexual harassment in 1995. More recently, the parties have self-policed.
Former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio., cracked down on Rep. Chris Lee., R-N.Y., caught in 2011 soliciting women on the Internet using a shirtless "selfie" photograph. Lee quit Congress immediately, as did former Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., discovered in 2010 having an affair with an aide.
Pelosi forced out Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., for tweeting lewd photos to women.
In the Internet age, the idea of a yearslong ethics process seems quaint. And social media sites can act as a de facto prosecutor, judge and jury in the span of hours.
"A lot of the stuff that used to be at best gossip, if that, now is going to be pictures on Twitter," said Michael Steel, who was a top adviser to Boehner.
AP reporters Andrew Taylor, Juliet Linderman and Kevin Freking contributed.
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