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As Al Franken steps down, a partisan division comes into focus

If the goal among Democrats was to position the party on the high ground, it appears they've succeeded. Will Republicans follow the Dems' lead?
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) speaks to reporters at a news conference outside the Capitol on June 9, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty)
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) speaks to reporters at a news conference outside the Capitol on June 9, 2016 in Washington, D.C.

When it comes to scandals prompting congressional resignations, departures from the U.S. House happen with relative frequency. We saw one in October, for example, and it didn't cause much of a fuss.

U.S. senators, however, resign from Congress under a cloud of scandal far less frequently. In the last 20 years, plenty of senators have left before the end of their terms to take other jobs or due to illness, but only one -- Republican John Ensign of Nevada -- was forced out by a controversy.

Today, however, there was another.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., the former "Saturday Night Live" comic who made an improbable journey to become a leading liberal voice in the Senate, announced on Thursday that he will leave office in the coming weeks, after a string of allegations of sexual misconduct and mounting pressure from Democratic lawmakers to step down."Today I am announcing that in the coming weeks, I will be resigning as a member of the United States Senate," Franken said during an emotional speech from the Senate floor.

It's not yet clear exactly when Franken will formally leave Capitol Hill, but he'll reportedly give up his seat at the end of the month. It means he's likely to remain in the chamber for the final vote on the Republican tax plan, which is expected before Christmas.

The Minnesotan seemed to make today's announcement grudgingly, arguing in his remarks, "Some of the allegations against me simply are not true, others I remember very differently." Franken conceded, however, that the scandal would make it impossible for him to be an effective lawmaker.

"[T]his decision is not about me. It's about the people of Minnesota," he said. "It's become clear that I can't both pursue the Ethics Committee process and at the same time, remain an effective senator for them."

Of course, there's the broader political landscape to consider, and Franken took the opportunity to highlight the details intended to make Republicans uncomfortable.

"I aware of the irony that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has preyed on underage girls is running for the Senate with the full support of his party," Franken said, referring to Donald Trump and Alabama's Roy Moore.

Indeed, while recent polling suggests there's a partisan gap in public attitudes related to sexual misconduct, a similar gap is coming into focus in Washington, D.C.

When Michigan's John Conyers was confronted with credible allegations of sexual misconduct, many of his Democratic colleagues called on him to step down and he did. When Minnesota's Al Franken faced related accusations, Senate Dems pressured him to resign and he did.

And yet, as Franken and other Democrats are eager to emphasize, Republicans have adopted a very different posture. Donald Trump not only faced multiple accusers, he was literally recorded on tape boasting about sexual assault. More than a year later, it's an issue GOP officials prefer to ignore.

While calling yesterday for Franken to step down, for example, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) wrote on Twitter, "We're seeing a culture of harassment and assault being exposed on a daily basis. Whether you are in the media, politics, or anywhere else, abuse of power is unacceptable and shouldn't be tolerated at any place, at any level."

There's certainly nothing wrong with the sentiment, though it raises the awkward question of why Murkowski hasn't also called for her party's president to resign.

Roy Moore, meanwhile, has been accused of child molestation, among other things, but his Senate candidacy nevertheless enjoys the support of the White House and the Republican National Committee. Even on Capitol Hill, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) recently conceded he used taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment claim against a former staffer. And while the Texas Republican has said he intends to pay back the money, as best as I can tell, no GOP officials has called for his resignation.

If the goal among Democrats was to position the party on the high ground when it comes to responding to allegations of sexual misconduct, it appears they've succeeded. What are the odds Republicans follow their lead?

* Update: edited slightly for clarity.