The race is on to 51 votes.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is closing in on winning a majority of senators to back legislation to remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command — sparking a scramble from her opponents to blunt her offensive.
Gillibrand has secured support from 44 senators who have co-sponsored her measure or publicly backed it, this week adding Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) — the chief authors of an alternative proposal — both fired back against Gillibrand’s bill.
Levin released letters from senior military officials that rebutted two of Gillibrand’s arguments, while McCaskill convened a press conference on Thursday flanked by retired female service members to highlight their opposition to the New York senator’s measure.
“It’s important that the other side of this story be made, and that the facts be known,” Levin told The Hill.
In response, Gillibrand’s office has touted endorsements from newspaper editorial boards and sexual assault victims’ advocates. Her office sent out a fact sheet after McCaskill’s press conference saying it was “more of the same” from her opponents.
As the dispute escalates, both sides are rushing to persuade senators who remain on the fence.
Gillibrand’s opponents say they are seeking to correct a misperception that the New York senator's legislation is the only way to help victims of military sexual assault.
“This has been a narrative that’s developed that this is victims versus uniforms,” McCaskill said Thursday, referring to military officials who are staunchly opposed to Gillibrand’s bill. “That’s just not true.”
Gillibrand’s backers, meanwhile, have targeted McCaskill, accusing her of supporting the status quo and military leaders.
Protect Our Defenders, a victims’ advocacy group, ran an advertisement in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch where Terri Odom, a sexual assault victim, wrote an open letter urging McCaskill to support removing cases from the chain of command.
“Without your support, perpetrators may continue to go free; victims will be too afraid to come forward; and our military readiness will suffer,” Odom wrote.
McCaskill said Thursday that the line of criticism gave her a “stomachache,” and has said that no one is fighting harder to stamp out sexual assault in the military than she is.
The fight over how to curb a rise in sexual assaults in the military was sparked by bipartisan outrage over the issue this year after a Pentagon report estimated there were 26,000 assaults last year, an increase from 19,000 in 2010.
There has been agreement reached on a number of reforms, including changes to the judicial code and increased protections for victims. But the chain of command issue has been the major sticking point.
Gillibrand’s legislation would remove the decision to prosecute most criminal cases from commanders and give it to military prosecutors. She and her supporters argue the move is necessary because victims aren’t reporting cases to their commanders for fear of retaliation.
Opponents of Gillibrand’s measure, however, say that taking the responsibility to prosecute cases from commanders will deprive them of a key tool to change the military’s culture.
This week the debate shifted to a dispute over the impact that removing the chain of command had on foreign militaries.
Levin’s Pentagon letter said that doing so hadn’t increased sexual assault prosecution rates among allied militaries, but Gillibrand’s office pointed to reports that the Israeli military had seen major gains.
The heart of Gillibrand’s legislation was stripped from the Defense authorization bill last month, and it was replaced in a 19-7 vote with an alternative from Levin and McCaskill. Their proposal adds new layers of review in sexual assault cases that a commander chooses not to prosecute.
Gillibrand vowed to fight on and bring her proposal to the floor as an amendment, and she has methodically worked to convince her colleagues to join her.
Her coalition of 44 backers does not fall neatly along the political spectrum: It includes libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Kirk, a hawkish Republican, and liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Two key voices that could tip the balance have not weighed in. While the Pentagon is on record in opposition to Gillibrand’s bill, the White House has not taken a position, saying only that President Obama supports all efforts to fix the problem.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who will decide when the Defense authorization bill comes to the floor, has also not endorsed either proposal. McCaskill and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who appeared at McCaskill’s press conference Thursday, are leading the lobbying effort against Gillibrand’s measure.
McCaskill suggested Thursday that she will try to change the minds of some senators who have pledged to support Gillibrand’s bill.
“I believe that a lot of senators are confused at this point,” McCaskill said.
But Gillibrand spokesman Glen Caplin said that the New York senator expects to continue amassing votes as she lobbies her colleagues.
“We think we will gain people as more people look closely at the issue and as more people listen directly to victims themselves,” Caplin said.