Dispute over sexual assault hems in Reid

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) faces a dilemma over military sexual assault as he’s being lobbied to take sides between two members of his caucus: Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.).

The two senators are bitterly divided over Gillibrand’s proposal to take the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other criminal cases outside the chain of command.

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After months of the senators publicly making their cases, and privately trying to persuade their Senate colleagues, Gillibrand’s proposal could get a vote on the Senate floor this week as an amendment to the Defense authorization bill.

Reid has remained quiet on the issue, declining to back either senator as his caucus — as well the Republican Conference — has split in unconventional ways.

Both McCaskill and Gillibrand are personally lobbying Reid, while Pentagon officials and victims’ advocacy groups on opposite sides of the bill have also tried to persuade him.

Reid’s decision could sway any undecided Democrats who are unsure which senator to back.

Reid said last week he would soon be picking a side.

“I’m arriving at a point very quickly where I will announce publicly what I’m going to do, but the people from the Pentagon, some of the victims, deserve a meeting with me, and I’m going to have those meetings over the next two days,” he said.

The intraparty battle leaves Reid no easy option.

Nearly three-quarters of Senate Democrats support Gillibrand’s measure, including every female Democratic senator except McCaskill.

But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and senior members of the committee disagree with her proposed overhaul of the military’s judicial system. Pentagon leaders are also staunchly opposed to the measure.

“Committee leadership usually gets a lot of deference on one side, but then you have clearly a majority of your caucus in opposition to those folks on the other side, so it creates a tough dynamic for him,” a Senate aide working on the issue said.

The White House also has declined to take a position on Gillibrand’s bill. President Obama earlier this year called for the military to look at every proposal to eliminate sexual assault within its ranks, but he has not weighed in despite lobbying from Congress.

“I’m so hopeful that he will,” Gillibrand said on “This Week,” when asked if Obama supported her proposal. “Because this is an opportunity for him to show extraordinary leadership on this issue.”

Among the other Democratic Senate leaders, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) is on the fence, while the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), is backing his fellow New Yorker.

Gillibrand counts 47 senators who publicly support her, including eight Republicans.

She says she’s received assurances that more than 50 senators will vote for her measure on the floor.

But Gillibrand remains short of the 60 votes she’s expected to need for her amendment to pass.

Gillibrand last week briefly considered narrowing her measure to sway undecided senators so it would only apply to sexual assault crimes, rather than all non-military crimes that carry a sentence of at least one year.

Some of her supporters raised concerns about the changes creating “pink courts” and a separate judicial system for women, and Gillibrand said Sunday she was sticking with her original legislation.

The lobbying has been intense on both sides as the issue has gained public attention this year, with competing press conferences, fact sheets, endorsements from retired military brass and victims’ testimonials.

Gillibrand and her supporters argue that professional military prosecutors, and not commanders, should make the decision to prosecute cases. They say that victims don’t believe they will receive justice and fear retaliation within the chain of command.

Opponents, however, say Gillibrand’s proposal would stop holding commanders accountable to change the military’s culture by taking away their ability to punish offenders.

On Monday, 11 members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Levin and McCaskill, sent a “Dear Colleague” letter arguing Gillibrand’s proposal was “deeply structurally flawed.”

“We believe strongly that this would create a system that would actually be worse for victims and significantly undermine the military system of justice and discipline,” the senators wrote.

Gillibrand and McCaskill insist their dispute does not extend beyond policy, although the fight has taken some personal turns.

Last summer, the victims’ advocacy group Protect Our Defenders released an ad in McCaskill’s home-state newspaper accusing her of “protecting the status quo.”

McCaskill said she was “stunned” by the ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The notion that I would ever be a roadblock to more effective prosecutions is enough to give me a stomachache,” she told the paper.