Sen. Gillibrand leads charge to change Pentagon sex-assault policy

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is raising her profile as one of the leading Democratic advocates for changing the way the military prosecutes sexual assault cases.

Gillibrand is making the case both publicly and privately to remove sexual assault cases from the military’s chain of command, a step that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other military leaders have resisted.

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Hagel has proposed to address the increase of sexual assaults in the military by stripping commanders of the ability to overturn guilty verdicts, but Gillibrand’s bill — which she will introduce Thursday with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) — would go even further. 

Gillibrand wants to remove major criminal cases from the chain of command altogether, setting the stage for a major fight in Congress over the military policy.

The senator is making her push on the issue as Democrats are hoping to build upon their advantage with female voters, a constituency that helped them hold the White House and Senate in the 2012 elections. 

The push is also taking place at a time when Gillibrand is often spoken of as a possible contender for the White House in 2016 if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decides not to run. 

Her name was circulated for a potential presidential nod this month after 

EMILY’s List, a group dedicated to electing Democratic women, launched a new campaign for a female president in 2016.

“Without having [Gillibrand] there and without having five Democratic women on the Senate Armed Services Committee, we might not be having this conversation,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock said in a statement. “The leadership of Sen. Gillibrand and the women she serves alongside is a perfect example of why we need more women in Congress.”

Aides to Gillibrand said the senator is focusing on sexual assault because it’s the right thing to do. 

They point out that the senator included provisions in last year’s Defense authorization bill to require discharge proceedings for anyone in the military convicted of sexual assault, and they noted she became chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services Personnel subcommittee just this year.

“This is a fight that Kirsten took on well over a year ago because it’s the right fight,” spokesman Glen Caplin said.

Gillibrand and other lawmakers have upped their calls for changes to the military’s handling of sexual assault cases after the release last week of a Pentagon report that estimated 26,000 assaults in the ranks last year, an increase of more than a third from 2010. 

Gillibrand’s bill would remove the decision to prosecute military crimes with a sentence of one year or more from the chain of command. The decision to move to a court martial would be placed in the hands of military prosecutors.

The legislation would apply to all crimes, not just sexual assault.

Her proposal faces opposition from military leaders, including Hagel.

“It is my strong belief — and I think others on Capitol Hill and within our institution — the ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure,” Hagel said at a press conference last week unveiling the Pentagon sexual assault report.

On Monday, however, Hagel spokesman George Little said that the secretary was “open to any and all options,” and was not ruling out anything yet, including the chain-of-command measure.

Hagel has proposed changes to the military’s judicial code that would prevent commanders from overturning guilty verdicts, which has gained the support of key leaders in Congress.

Gillibrand and others, including Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), support Hagel’s plan, but say it isn’t sufficient.

Speier has introduced legislation in the House that is similar to Gillibrand’s, although it would only remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command.

Gillibrand’s bill faces an uphill climb in the Senate, as a number of her Democratic colleagues are waiting to say whether they endorse it. 

“I agree with Sen. Gillibrand that we have significant reforms we have to do in the process,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who has released legislation that would change the post-trial review process. “Exactly which ones end up getting embraced by the [National Defense Authorization Act] NDAA, I think it’s too early to tell, but we’re working together and talking every day.”

Gillibrand has gained the support of several key lawmakers ahead of her bill’s release, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who endorsed it Sunday.

Reps. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), the first female combat veterans elected to Congress, also backed the proposal Sunday.

Aides say Gillibrand is privately lobbying her colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and has also spoken to Hagel about the bill. She discussed it during last week’s White House meeting with lawmakers on sexual assault.

The measure faces congressional opposition, too, including from some Democrats and Republicans who have been vocal about the sexual assault problem.

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said there wasn’t much support for the senator’s plan in last week’s White House meeting.

“It was discussed and raised, but people pretty resoundingly indicated they are not in support of removing it from the military chain of command,” Turner said.

Gillibrand’s proposal isn’t the first time she has pushed for significant changes in the military. In 2009, she emerged as a leading advocate for repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” winning her plaudits from the left.

Her stature on military sexual assault has risen this year as she’s taken over the Armed Services Personnel subcommittee. She’s one of three women leading Senate Armed Services subpanels, a shift that defense observers say has created a greater environment for changes to be made on the assault issue.

Gillibrand held her first committee hearing in March on sexual assault, which was also the committee’s first hearing on the issue in nearly a decade.

“We’re looking for a way to make sure that justice is served,” she said after the hearing.