Reed: Commanders must be involved in reporting assaults

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said Wednesday that removing military commanders from the process of reporting military sexual assaults would “weaken” their effectiveness. 

“I believe we will make the most progress on this issue by including commanders,” Reed said on the Senate floor. “I believe commanders have to be involved in every step.”

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The Senate is debating the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes more than $625 billion in defense spending for the Pentagon. 

Some protections for victims of sexual assault were included during committee markup of NDAA, such as providing a lawyer for victims and criminalizing retaliation against victims who report assaults. But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and most of the other female senators have said the underlying bill doesn’t go far enough.

Gillibrand’s amendment would take military sexual assault cases outside the chain of command. She says that's necessary to encourage people to report assault. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and most Republicans on the committee oppose Gillibrand’s amendment.

"We’re being asked here to wait and see," said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a sponsor of Gillibrand's amendment. "The time for trying tweaks and waiting for new reports has long since passed."

Earlier this year, the Pentagon estimated that there were 26,000 cases of sexual assault last year.

Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) have an alternative amendment that would strengthen sexual assault prevention activities within the Defense Department, including eliminating the “good soldier” defense.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — who came out in support of Gillibrand's provision on Tuesday — said he hoped to have votes Gillibrand's amendment and a side-by-side amendment later Wednesday. Both amendments are expected to need 60-votes to be adopted. Gillibrand has bipartisan support from only 50 senators.

Reed said he wouldn’t support Gillibrand’s amendment because it would “erode unit cohesions” but he does support McCaskill’s.

The underlying bill also gives an across the board 1 percent pay raise for services members and allows the transfer of Guantánamo Bay detainees to the United States for trial or foreign countries.

Time is running out to complete work on the “must-pass” legislation — Congress has passed an NDAA bill for 51 straight years. If final passage gets pushed back until after the Senate’s Thanksgiving break, it gives a House and Senate conference committee little time to work out differences by the end of the year.