Senator Kirsten Gillibrand plans to push for legislation removing sexual-assault prosecutions from the military’s chain of command after congressional leaders spurned her approach in crafting a compromise defense bill.
“I have an assurance that we will get a vote, just not when we will get a vote -- before the end of the year or maybe right away in the new year,” Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, told reporters yesterday. Leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees agreed Dec. 9 on a $552.1 billion defense authorization bill for the current fiscal year.
Under the compromise, commanders would be stripped of the ability to dismiss a finding by a court martial and would be barred from reducing guilty findings. Retaliation against personnel reporting sexual assaults would become a military crime.
President Barack Obama has said the issue of sexual assault is undermining trust and readiness among members of the armed forces, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called attacks a “scourge” and a “blight” on the military.
While Hagel and uniformed leaders in the military have backed changes in the handling of such cases, they have resisted Gillibrand’s approach, saying commanding officers must be able to discipline their own troops.
The issue has crossed party and gender lines. Gillibrand has won support from Republicans including Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, while her proposal has been opposed by such Democrats as Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who heads the Armed Services Committee, and Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
“People got so distracted by one disagreement, everybody ignored the body of work that we have accomplished here” in the defense bill, McCaskill said yesterday in an interview. The Defense Department will be “the most victim-friendly organization in the world,” she said.
Advocacy groups for sexual-assault victims said the legislation didn’t go far enough.
“Congress has chosen to sidestep the most important military justice reform to come across its desk in history, once again leaving sexual assault victims devastated and betrayed by inaction,” said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network and a former Marine Corps captain, whose group supports Gillibrand.
The group’s policy director, Greg Jacob, a former Marine, said in an e-mailed statement that the compromise defense measure contains more than 30 provisions that aid victims of rape and other sexual assault in the military.
Brian Purchia, a spokesman for Protect Our Defenders, a policy group, said in an e-mailed statement, “Congress has again failed to address the fundamental issue fueling the crisis -- the often biased chain of command.”
Army Lieutenant Colonel Catherine Wilkinson, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement that it’s long-standing Defense Department policy “not to comment on pending legislation.” Once the defense measure becomes law, she said, “we will put the full weight of the department toward its implementation.”
Hagel “has made it clear that he remains open to considering a wide range of options to improve the military’s response to sexual assault,” she said.
Gillibrand told reporters at the Capitol that she was still a few votes shy of the 60 needed to pass her measure and that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, had assured her she’d get a vote in coming weeks on that stand-alone bill.
“The men and women who have survived these atrocities have taken so much time, at great personal expense, to be here, to tell their stories, and I think they deserve a vote,” she said. “So I’d like to get a vote sooner rather than later.”
McCaskill said she will offer an alternative on the Senate floor if Gillibrand presents her proposal.
“If there’s any votes on Senator Gillibrand’s measures as a stand-alone bill, I am confident that we will have an alternative at that time also, so that the senators will have choices. We will offer it at the same time,” McCaskill said.
Gillibrand said she didn’t think the prospects for her proposal were adversely affected by not acting on it as part of the defense authorization bill.
She said votes to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” barring openly gay service members were broken off from the defense bill in 2010 and passed as stand-alone measures.
The compromise defense policy bill was crafted to sidestep disputes over how many amendments could be offered to a version that was awaiting Senate action. Levin said lawmakers wanted to advance the resulting measure through the House this week and win passage in the Senate before year’s end.