WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic U.S. Senator Al Franken announced his resignation from office on Thursday, bowing to pressure from party colleagues after a series of sexual misconduct allegations against him.
Franken, 66, a former comedian who had been seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party, said he would be leaving in a few weeks. Even as he did so, he denied some of the allegations against him and questioned others.
"I know in my heart that nothing I've done as a senator - nothing - has brought dishonour on this institution," Franken said. "Nevertheless, today I am announcing that in the coming weeks, I will be resigning as a member of the United States Senate."
Franken, whose Senate seat will initially be filled by a Democrat appointed by Minnesota's Democratic governor, is one of several prominent American men in politics, media and entertainment to be accused in recent months of sexual harassment and misconduct.
Allegations that he had groped and tried to kiss women without their consent began to surface three weeks ago.
After the initial accusations, Franken said he was embarrassed and ashamed by his behaviour but would not resign. Rather, he said, he would cooperate with a Senate ethics probe and work to regain the trust of the people of Minnesota.
However on Wednesday, calls for him to resign came from the majority of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate, including Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and almost all of the Democratic women in the chamber. That pressure came as a new allegation, denied by Franken, hit the news.
"Some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others I remember very differently," Franken said on Thursday.
Striking a tone of defiance, he also sought to contrast himself with two Republicans - President Donald Trump and Senate candidate Roy Moore.
"I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact 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 repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate, with the full support of his party," he said.
Trump was heard bragging about kissing and touching women in a 2005 videotape that surfaced last year as he was running for the White House. He apologised for the remarks, but called them private "locker-room talk" and said he had not done the things he talked about. Trump also denied allegations at that time by at least 12 women of sexual advances and groping in the past.
Reuters has not independently verified the accusations.
Moore, who is running for the Senate in Alabama in a special election on Tuesday, has been accused by several women of sexual assault or misconduct when they were teenagers and Moore was in his early 30s. Moore, 70, has denied the accusations, which Reuters has not independently verified.
Trump has backed Moore, but Senate Republicans have been cooler towards his candidacy.
In pressing Franken to step aside, Democrats have tried to capture the moral high ground and draw a distinction between their party and Republicans.
"As he and I discussed yesterday, this is the right decision ... In every workplace in America, including the U.S. Senate, we must confront the challenges of harassment and misconduct," said Amy Klobuchar, Franken's fellow Democratic senator from Minnesota.
Democrat John Conyers, the longest serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives, stepped down on Tuesday after multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, the first member of Congress to leave his seat during the wave of high-profile harassment allegations. Conyers has denied the allegations against him.
SENATE BALANCE OF POWER
For the moment, the Republicans' slim majority in the Senate will not be affected as Minnesota's Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, will appoint someone to take his place, ensuring Democrats hold the seat for now.
Dayton said in a statement he would make his decision in the next couple of days.
In the longer term, Franken's departure may complicate the party's efforts to hold or build on the 46 Senate seats they currently hold. Two independent senators also vote with the Democrats.
While Republicans are defending eight seats in the midterm election in November 2018, Democrats must preserve 26, if Minnesota holds a special election for Franken's chair.
The election to fill Franken's seat could be close. When he ran in 2008, the race was decided after an extensive recount, with Minnesota's Supreme Court weighing in. In the 2016 presidential election, Democrat Hillary Clinton won the state by less than two points.
In the latest accusation against Franken, Politico reported on Wednesday that a congressional aide said Franken had tried to forcibly kiss her in 2006, before he was elected to the Senate. Franken denied the allegation, Politico reported.
Reuters has not independently verified the accusations against him.
Despite the party's calls for him to leave, several of Franken's Democratic colleagues dabbed tears from their eyes during his speech on Thursday. His family watched from the balcony.
Afterward, his Democratic colleagues lined up to embrace him, including many of the women who had called for his resignation.
(Reporting by Makini Brice; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker, Maria Caspani, Doina Chiacu and Richard Cowan; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Frances Kerry)