OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Military fight on sexual assault ramps up

The Topline: The military sexual assault debate is back in the Senate after a brief two-month hiatus.

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) held dueling back-to-back press conferences on Thursday ahead of a potential vote on both of their competing measures in the Senate next week.

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We’ve been here before: In November, both lobbied publicly and privately ahead of a planned vote on their measures as amendments to the Defense authorization bill, only to have the vote canceled over a larger amendments dispute.

Gillibrand still has 53 public supporters for her bill to take sexual assault cases outside the chain of command, the controversial proposal opposed by McCaskill, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and the military brass.

She’s expected to need 60 votes, a number she remains short of, but said Thursday she could win the vote.

“When some say you should wait another year, we say our brave men and women deserve better,” Gillibrand said at her press conference.

McCaskill’s bill will also get a vote but should pass easily, as it builds on the sexual assault reforms included in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by eliminating the “good soldier defense” and allowing victims to challenge their discharges.

Gillibrand’s measure would be the most sweeping change to the military’s judicial system, removing the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other major criminal cases from commanders and giving it to military prosecutors.

Gillibrand said the provisions in the NDAA — and McCaskill’s amendment — were all good, but that they still didn’t go far enough to root out the longstanding problem of sexual assault in the military.

Gillibrand and her supporters on Thursday called for her proposal to receive an up-or-down vote on the Senate.

“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.”

McCaskill, however, said Thursday she would block a motion to proceed to Gillibrand’s bill, forcing the 60-vote threshold.

“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.”

Senate will also tackle pensions cut: In addition to the sexual assault bills, the Senate is also gearing up next week to tackle the $6 billion cut to military pensions included in the December budget deal.

The Senate will hold a procedural vote Monday on a measure from Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) that would also reverse the pension cuts for working-age retirees, after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday filed cloture on the measure.

Senate aides have also said the Senate could take up next week a veterans omnibus bill from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that includes a repeal of the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) reduction.

The Senate Armed Services Committee also has a markup scheduled on a Pryor bill to repeal the COLA cuts — though with a different bill number — after Monday’s vote.

All of the repeal bills face hurdles.

Sanders’s $24 billion measure is paid for by using $20 billion from Overseas Contingency Operations, which Republicans oppose, and they are preparing an alternative.

The bill from Pryor and Hagan does not have any offset, which has proven the biggest sticking point to repealing the COLA cuts. 

Hunter wants to bring back unfunded priorities lists: Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel he wants the services to start submitting to Congress their “unfunded priorities” lists that were stopped two years ago.

“It would be extremely naïve to assume that the budget provides absolutely everything that each of the services needs and if Congress can adjust funds to better fulfill certain requirements that information should be provided,” Hunter wrote.

The services used to give Congress long lists of unfunded priorities, but those were curtailed and altogether stopped in 2012 as the Pentagon began trimming its budgets.

Back in 2012, Republicans also complained to the Pentagon about the services not providing unfunded priorities list, but they did not resume them.

This year, there have been reports that the Pentagon is considering a $26 billion “wish list” of priorities, which would be similar but not necessarily at the service level.

Congress wants a say in Afghan withdrawal: A bipartisan group of senators proposed legislation Thursday that would give Congress a say in whether U.S. troops are kept in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a nonbinding resolution Thursday that would allow lawmakers to vote on whether to authorize U.S. troops staying beyond the end of their combat mission in December.

“A decision about whether to extend a military mission in Afghanistan until 2024 is too important to be made without public debate,” Merkley said at a press conference Thursday.

The White House is working with Afghanistan on a bilateral security agreement that would allow troops to stay, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign it until after the April presidential elections there.

If passed, the resolution would complicate White House efforts to keep a small force in the country, for training and counterterrorism missions.

The senators, who have previously pressed Obama on quickening the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, said that the public was on the side of a full withdrawal.

“The American people are totally in favor of this direction from every corner of this country,” Manchin said. “When you talk about bringing the troops home and stopping this absolute endless war in Afghanistan, that’s the one resonating thing that brings the crowd together.” 

 

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