WASHINGTON – Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has secured public support from nearly half the Senate, but not enough votes, for her proposal to give victims of rape and sexual assault in the military an independent route outside the chain of command for prosecuting attackers.
Gillibrand’s solution for a problem the military calls an epidemic appears to have stalled in the face of united opposition from the Pentagon’s top echelon and its allies in Congress, including two female senators who are former prosecutors.
Opponents of the proposal by Gillibrand, D-N.Y., insist that commanders, not an outside military lawyer, must be accountable for meting out justice.
Even so, major changes are coming for a decades-old military system just a few months after several high-profile cases infuriated both parties in a chain of events rapid by Washington standards.
“Sexual assault in the military is not new, but it has been allowed to fester,” Gillibrand said in a recent Senate speech.
The Senate this week is set to consider an annual defense policy bill that would strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, require dishonorable discharge or dismissal for any individual convicted of sexual assault and establish a civilian review when a decision is made not to prosecute a case.
The bill would provide a special counsel for victims and eliminate the statute of limitations.
Those changes in military law are backed by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But overshadowing the revisions is the intense fight over Gillibrand’s proposal to strip commanders of their authority to prosecute cases of sexual assault. She wants to hand responsibility to seasoned military lawyers outside the chain of command.
Her solution has divided the Senate, splitting Republicans and Democrats, men and women, even former attorneys general, into unusual coalitions. The lobbying has been fierce, with dueling data, testimonials and news conferences with victims. Opponents invited Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Loretta Reynolds to the closed-door Republican caucus last week.
Among Gillibrand’s 47 announced supporters are conservative Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., along with 16 of the Senate’s 20 women.
Standing against the plan is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.; the panel’s military veterans John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., and three of the committee’s women — Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., both former prosecutors, and Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.
Gillibrand says she privately has received backing from more than 50 senators, but support remains short of the filibuster-proof 60 votes that likely will be needed for her amendment to the defense bill. To secure more votes, she said last week she was considering scaling back her plan to focus solely on sexual assault and rape instead of all serious crimes. That prompted complaints from her original backers that it would create “pink courts,” and Gillibrand said on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday she was reverting to her initial bill.
The Defense Department reports that sexual assaults in the military increased by an unprecedented 46 percent during the last budget year. An anonymous survey of military personnel puts the figure much higher.