Senators gear up for sexual assault vote

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Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) made their last-minute pitches Tuesday on Gillibrand’s military sexual assault bill ahead of a Senate vote that could come as early as Wednesday.

The list of Gillibrand’s public supporters jumped up to 50 on Tuesday, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he was backing her measure to take the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other major crimes away from commanders.

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Reid is backing Gillibrand’s bill despite opposition from McCaskill and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

Reid said he hopes to have a vote on Gillibrand’s bill on Wednesday.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) also signed onto Gillibrand’s measure Tuesday, and he spoke at a press conference that Gillibrand held with retired generals and service organizations advocating for her bill.

McCaskill, meanwhile, released letters Tuesday from the Air Force, Navy and Army Service associations expressing opposition to Gillibrand’s measure.

Gillibrand still appears to have a difficult climb to reach the 60 votes she would need to pass her amendment on the Defense authorization bill, though she said that the threshold was within reach.

“We are well over half of the support of senators,” Gillibrand said at her press conference. “It’s a moment when people are studying, learning and making decisions, and we want to make sure they know the facts. And I personally will make sure I call and speak to every undecided senator today.”

McCaskill, however, said she did not think Gillibrand’s measure would reach 60 votes.

“I believe we will prevail on the amendment,” McCaskill told reporters. “It’s about the policy, what’s best for victims and what will put more perpetrators in prison.”

The two senators also disagreed over how many of their colleagues are still undecided. Gillibrand said Tuesday there were 20 to 25 senators who hadn’t made up their minds, but McCaskill said the number was only five or six.

Gillibrand’s bill has divided the Senate, with senators from both parties lining up on each side of the debate.

Three-quarters of Democrats now support Gillibrand’s bill, as well as Republicans like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Senior Democrats and Republicans on the Armed Services Committee, including Levin and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.), are opposed to the proposal. Military leaders are also staunchly against it.

Eleven members of the Armed Services panel sent a letter to colleagues on Monday arguing that Gillibrand’s bill would be worse for victims and would undermine the military’s system of justice.

Gillibrand’s backers say that victims don’t report sexual assault crimes in the current system for fear of retaliation.

In a show of support for the sexual assault reforms already included in the Defense authorization bill, 10 female senators spoke on the Senate floor about fixing the problem of sexual assault within the military’s ranks.

McCaskill and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) joined eight others who back Gillibrand’s bill. The senators spoke during Gillibrand’s press conference.