GOP cries foul over Dem petition urging changes to military sexual assault policy

Republicans are up in arms over a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) petition email urging supporters to back legislation to remove sexual assault cases from the military chain of command.

Republican congressional aides are accusing the DCCC of politicizing an issue that both parties are trying to address as Congress weighs what changes to make to the military’s judicial code in the wake of a rise in assaults.

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The DCCC email sent Saturday asks supporters to sign a petition in support of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) bill that would remove sexual assault and other felony-level cases from the chain of command.

“Democrats in Congress are taking a stand to better protect our service men and women — but they need our support to ensure that independent prosecutors are deciding whether to prosecute sexual assault cases,” the email states.

The email links to a petition that’s hosted on Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.) campaign website. It’s paid for by seven Democratic senators’ campaign or political action committees, as well as the DCCC and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).

One Republican aide called the DCCC’s involvement “sickening,” and another senior GOP aide complained that the political committees should not be weighing in on sexual assault policy.

“What we don't need are political organizations using tragedy for partisan gain,” the senior GOP aide said. “The truth is that there are people on both sides of the aisle who have serious, well-founded concerns that knee-jerk revisions to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) will do more harm than good.”

DCCC spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in an email that its supporters are "deeply concerned about the issue of sexual violence — and we encouraged them to support this and other critical legislation."

"Why wouldn’t Republicans want them to have a voice? The petition focused on the positive elements of the legislation and encouraged people to back the proposal,” Bittner said.

A committee aide also noted that Republicans have fundraised off the Obama administration's response to last year's terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

The DCCC petition email doesn’t ask supporters to donate money. Nonetheless, it suggests that military sexual assault could become a campaign issue in 2014, particularly if measures like Gillibrand’s are defeated.

Gillibrand’s bill, however, does not fall strictly along party lines, as it has three Republican Senate co-sponsors and two in the House. Gillibrand herself has played up the backing of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

Some Democrats have also expressed concerns over the bill, and Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who will play a key role in the measure’s fate, has yet to weigh in.

The senior Republican aide also noted that President Obama has not said he supports the idea. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey have said they are open to the idea but stopped short of endorsing it.

“This is a perilous course for the DCCC. They could well be petitioning for a law President Obama would ultimately feel compelled to veto,” the aide said.

Obama has called for the military to do a better job curbing sexual assaults after a new Pentagon report found a rise in assaults last year. Obama met last week with Hagel, the Joint Chiefs and service secretaries to talk about the best path forward.

On Sunday, White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer declined to answer on CNN’s “State of the Union” whether Obama supports taking sexual assault cases outside the chain of command.

“There's an array of legislative solutions that are out there. We're going to look at every one to find a way that works best,” Pfeiffer said when asked about the proposal.