Gillibrand's final push on sex assault bill

Greg Nash

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is hoping one last push can win a vote on her legislation to take military sexual assault cases outside the chain of command.

Gillibrand held a press conference Wednesday on her bill featuring victims of military sexual assault, victims’ advocates and veterans groups to argue major reforms are needed, setting off what’s poised to be an intense final sprint between supporters and opponents of Gillibrand’s measure to sway undecided senators.

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The New York senator has actively lobbied her colleagues for months on the legislation, which would take the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other major crimes away from commanders and give it to military prosecutors.

She has assembled a diverse bipartisan coalition of 46 senators who back her bill — ranging from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — but the number of supporters has stalled at 46 since August.

Gillibrand is opposed by several of her Democratic colleagues, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), as well as most Republicans on the Armed Services panel. Pentagon leaders have also expressed their staunch opposition.

The proposal is headed for a vote on the Senate floor later this month during debate on the defense authorization bill.

Paul, Cruz, Boxer and four other senators joined Gillibrand at Wednesday’s press conference in a show of bipartisan backing for the measure, which would implement the most sweeping structural reform of the military justice system in decades.

“Instead of the zero tolerance pledge that we have now heard for over two decades — going back to when the secretary of Defense was Dick Cheney first using those words in 1992 — what we really have today is zero accountability,” Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand and her supporters argue that taking cases outside the chain of command is needed because victims do not report sexual assault crimes out of fears that commanders won’t prosecute the cases and they will face retaliation.

Opponents of her bill say that the decision to prosecute cases must remain in the chain of command so that commanders are held accountable for their command climate on sexual assault, and so they retain the ability to punish perpetrators.

Gillibrand’s proposal is the most controversial out of dozens of reforms that have been proposed in Congress this year amid widespread outrage over military sexual assault.

Gillibrand’s backers and detractors have been arguing over the merits of the chain-of-command and sexual assault prosecution for months, gearing up for the floor flight after Levin in June passed an amendment to his committee’s defense authorization bill that stripped Gillibrand’s proposal.

Now that the bill is finally headed to the Senate floor, the two sides are targeting senators not on the committee who are just starting to tune in and haven’t taken a position.

Gillibrand faces an uphill climb to pass her measure, as she’s likely going to need 60 votes for it to pass.

Levin said this week she expects 60 votes will be required for her sexual assault measure and all other controversial amendments on the defense bill.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he would “do whatever it takes to make sure we don’t go down that road,” indicating he was likely to require the 60-vote threshold.

Gillibrand has argued those who oppose her bill are trying to protect the status quo, and she argued her measure should receive an up-or-down vote.

“It’s not surprising that the opponents of our bill who are trying to protect the current broken system want to ensure that a majority of the Senate is not enough,” she said.

While the two sides are arguing over the chain-of-command issue, they do agree on a host of other reforms, including a new measure introduced Tuesday to change the military’s pre-trial judicial process. That is also expected to get a vote on the defense authorization bill.