Senate sexual assault fight renewed

The Senate renewed its fight over sexual assaults in the military on Thursday, with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) holding dueling press conferences over whether such cases should be stripped from the military command.

The back-to-back press conferences, scheduled 45 minutes apart, came ahead of a vote scheduled next week on their competing measures.

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Gillibrand's measure would strip the decision to prosecute sexual assault cases away from commanders.

“When some say you should wait another year, we say our brave men and women deserve better,” Gillibrand said at her press conference, where she stood alongside advocates of her bill, including six other senators.

Pentagon leaders vehemently oppose her measure, as do McCaskill and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.). An earlier effort by Gillibrand to win a vote for her measure as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act failed, though that legislation did include some reforms. 

Gillibrand on Thursday said the changes in last year's bill weren't enough.

“I supported all of those reforms, they are a step forward, but it is not enough to solve this problem within our military where the military leadership has failed our men and women ... for more than 20 years," she said.

Her legislation would give military prosecutors the authority to prosecute cases, something she said was needed because victims are afraid of retaliation from commanders and often don’t report their crimes.

Opponents of her bill argue that taking the decision to prosecute cases away from commanders will remove their ability to change the military’s culture and root out sexual assault.

Sixty votes likely will be needed to move forward given an expected filibuster from opponents, and Gillibrand and some of her supporters were confident they could get to that threshold.

“Yes, I think we can get to 60,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), one of Gillibrand’s closest supporters. “But we shouldn’t have to get to 60. It ought to be an up-or-down vote. Justice should never be filibustered.”

But McCaskill — whose bill with additional reforms is not controversial and should easily clear 60 votes — said Gillibrand should be subject to the same 60-vote threshold as most bills in the Senate.

“There’s an awful lot of bills around here I care about that have to get 60 votes. I don’t know why we’d make an exception here,” McCaskill said. “We do not believe that her bill will protect victims. We do not believe it will increase reporting.”

Gillibrand’s measure is supported by 53 senators, including nine Republicans.

McCaskill and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) touted that a congressionally mandated panel tasked with studying military sexual assault siding against Gillibrand’s proposal in a 7-2 vote last month.

“They started this process assuming that they would agree with Sen. Gillibrand’s proposal, and after looking at the evidence found out they didn’t agree,” McCaskill said of the review panel. “And I think there are some senators that are taking a second look.”

Gillibrand downplayed the results of the panel, however, as a spokesman said in a statement: “There is nothing surprising about a Pentagon sub-panel working mostly behind closed doors supporting stated Pentagon policy.”

Another Pentagon advisory panel on women in the military last year said it supported the Gillibrand bill, though McCaskill dismissed its conclusions because the panel only interviewed four witnesses, McCaskill, Gillibrand and two advocates, compared to more than 100 by the panel siding against Gillibrand.

Ahead of next week’s vote, Gillibrand could pick up at least one more supporter in the Senate.

The Senate confirmed Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to be ambassador to China on Thursday, and his successor is widely expected to be Montana Lt. Gov. John Walsh.

Walsh penned an op-ed in The Hill supporting Gillibrand’s amendment, while Baucus was not backing her. It’s unclear if Baucus’s successor will be sworn in before the vote on Gillibrand’s bill, however. 

— This story was updated at 3:12 p.m.