Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Tuesday signed on to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) legislation to remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command.
Paul is the fifth Republican to co-sponsor Gillibrand’s measure, which is opposed by Pentagon leaders and the heads of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I see no reason why conservatives shouldn’t support this,” Paul said. “The only thing I think standing in the way is just sort of the status quo.”
With Paul’s backing, Gillibrand’s legislation now has 34 co-sponsors. She plans to offer it as an amendment to the Defense authorization bill on the Senate floor.
Gillibrand still faces a long road to reach 51 votes, however, as she is fighting against a competing proposal offered by Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that has the support of top Republicans on the committee. Military leaders oppose Gillibrand’s bill.
The New York senator continues to lobby her colleagues to back the bill, and her office said that Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) had signed on Tuesday. Newly sworn-in Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is also likely to back her, as he sponsored the House version of the bill.
Gillibrand’s measure would remove the decision to prosecute major criminal cases from the chain of command and place it in the hands of military prosecutors, making exceptions for military-specific crimes.
There has been broad bipartisan outrage in Congress over military sexual assault, after a Pentagon report this year estimated there were 26,000 assaults in 2012, an increase of more than a third from 2010.
Lawmakers proposed a flurry of measures in response, with Gillibrand’s going the furthest to make structural changes to the military’s judicial code.
Levin’s proposal leaves the decision to prosecute with commanders, but it adds a new layer of review by civilian leaders of the services if a commander disagrees with the prosecutor on going forward with a case.
Support for Gillibrand’s measure does not fall neatly along party lines. Her plan is opposed by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who has long been a vocal advocate on the committee for sexual assault reform. Levin and McCaskill have argued that the decision to prosecute must remain with commanders so they will be held responsible for changing the culture in the military to reduce the number of sexual assaults.
“It’s commanders who make it work, because they give orders, they discipline people who violate those orders,” Levin said Tuesday at a breakfast roundtable hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “You not only want them to have the power to discipline to implement their orders, you’ve also got to hold them accountable.”
Gillibrand and her backers argue that victims aren’t coming forward and reporting the crime because they are worried about repercussions from commanders.
“If the victims do not trust the chain of command, they will not report these cases,” Gillibrand said Tuesday. “If they witnessed other people reporting and being retaliated against, if they witnessed other people being shoved out of the military because they reported these crimes, they will not trust the system that the chain of command has put into place.”
The Senate Armed Services panel voted 17-9 to strip Gillibrand’s proposal from the Defense authorization bill and replace it with Levin’s. Democrats were split 7-7 on the vote, while all Republicans besides Cruz and Vitter backed Levin’s proposal.
Cruz will be co-sponsoring Gillibrand’s bill once it is an amendment on the floor, according to a Gillibrand aide.
This story was updated at 12:19 p.m.