(Updates with panel rejecting Gillibrand proposal in second through fourth paragraphs.)
By Laura Litvan
June 12 (Bloomberg) -- Female senators pushing legislation to curb sexual assaults in the armed forces confronted opposition from top military officials and their own leadership on how to change the way cases are investigated and prosecuted.
Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee joined Pentagon officials in rejecting a proposal to investigate sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command.
While an Armed Services subcommittee yesterday approved that change in the handling of sexual-assault cases as part of a broader defense measure, the full panel today voted 17-9 to instead require high-level review whenever a commander decides against pursuing prosecution of a sex-assault allegation.
“The voices of the victims of sexual assault have been drowned out by the military leaders who have failed to combat this crisis,” Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, leader of the effort to restrict commanders’ authority, said in a statement after the vote. Four women, including Gillibrand, voted on her side in committee. Three women voted against.
The proposal restricting commanders’ prosecution authority has emerged as the central issue in a debate sparked by the results of a Defense Department survey estimating 26,000 cases of sexual assaults last year, compared with 2,949 victims identified in criminal reports.
While saying the current version of the bill includes “several significant steps forward,” Gillibrand said the fight for her plan “has only just begun” and she’ll press for it when the measure reaches the Senate floor.
With a record 20 women serving in the Senate, a bipartisan group joined together to push for changes, setting up a showdown with the male-dominated Pentagon.
The group ran into resistance even from some allies. Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, opposes an independent prosecutor in sexual assault cases and offered the bipartisan plan that would keep sex-assault cases in the chain of command while requiring a higher-level review of any commanding officer’s decision not to prosecute.
“Only the chain of command can establish a zero-tolerance policy for sexual offenses,” he said at a June 4 panel hearing.
Even before the panel met, one of its female members, Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri, sided with Levin’s approach, which also would make it a crime to retaliate against victims who report sexual assaults.
“The good news is, there’s someone above the prosecutor that’s a civilian that can, in fact, pass judgment also,” McCaskill said on the Senate floor. She said the proposal will “empower victims and lead to more reporting.”
At a hearing last week, military officers including Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, criticized the proposal to restrict commanders’ prosecution authority. He said military discipline would be hurt if commanding officers didn’t handle the cases.
Gillibrand reacted sharply.
“Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force,” she told the officers. “Not every single commander believes what a sexual assault is. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together.”
Women in both parties have little to lose by pressing this legislation, Sean Kay, a professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, said before the committee’s vote.
“I don’t see how there’s a downside for them at all politically,” Kay said. “These well-informed experts who happen to be women are forcing the military to think differently about these issues.”
The question is how far Congress is willing to go.
The chain-of-command measure has the most pushback from the Pentagon. Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, and Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, back proposals that would provide military lawyers throughout the legal process to alleged victims of sexual assault and criminalize sexual relationships between basic-training instructors and students.
Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar has offered a measure to prevent convicted sex offenders from enlisting or being commissioned in the military. With Republican Susan Collins of Maine, she proposes preventing military officials from dismissing a court-martial conviction for sexual assault.
Some male lawmakers have joined in the effort. Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, is co-sponsoring legislation with Collins and McCaskill to bar commanders from overturning court-martial convictions and require a minimum penalty of dishonorable discharge for those found guilty of sexual assault.
Blunt said he’s determined to see some change occur this year, although he can’t predict what law will emerge.
“Clearly the attitude at the top levels in the military needs to change in a way that gets them focused on addressing this problem,” Blunt said. “Business as usual isn’t good enough.”
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, acknowledged the Pentagon’s resistance could force the toughest proposals off the table.
“It probably makes it harder to get some of the changes done, but I think the effort to try to get them done won’t change,” she said.
Collins said she isn’t so sure. She sees parallels with legislation overturning the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning openly gay personnel from serving. While the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was supportive, the chiefs of all the military services opposed the measure.
It passed in December 2010 and has become accepted, Collins said. The military is too resistant to change to significantly alter legal and cultural policy on its own, she said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we need to have legislative changes,’ Collins said. ‘‘There have been legitimate issues that have been raised over which bill is the best approach, but we can’t just leave this up to the military. The military has shown, sadly, that it is incapable of solving this problem or even making significant progress.”
The drive for legislation is fueled by the Pentagon sexual-assault statistics and a series of scandals roiling the Defense Department. The military is pursuing three cases in which officers who worked in sexual-assault prevention programs were accused of wrongdoing that included assault, mistreatment of subordinates and inducing prostitution.
The debate has taken on a partisan edge.
At the June 4 panel hearing, Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, cited the “hormone level” among young recruits as a contributing factor in the surge in assaults.
Democrats pounced. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, looking to the 2014 congressional elections, said Chambliss’s remark shows that a “Republican war on women” continues, and vowed to push harder for measures preventing military sexual assaults.
That’s a slogan the Democrats used in 2012, when they gained a 55-seat Senate majority. Of the seven women on the Senate Armed Services committee, two Democrats -- Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Shaheen -- are up for re-election in 2014.
House lawmakers say they want to take some action as well. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, called the increase in military sexual assaults a “national disgrace” and said he expects his chamber to take up changes to military law as part of debate on an annual defense bill.
Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who is leading efforts in the House, lashed out at the military’s top brass on June 9 on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“They‘re enablers because this has been a problem for 25 years and for 25 years they’ve trotted up to Capitol Hill, they sat in committee hearings and they said all the right things, zero tolerance,” she said. “But then the scandals keep happening.”