Gillibrand’s military sex assault bill facing Armed Services threat

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) is preparing a proposal in the Defense authorization bill that would nix Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) measure to remove the decision to prosecute sexual assault cases from the chain of command.

Levin told reporters Tuesday that he was proposing an alternative to Gillibrand’s bill that would mandate a review of any decision a commander makes not to prosecute a sexual assault case.

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“It would be an alternative approach, which those of us who favor [it] think would be much more effective, frankly, to removing it from the chain of command,” Levin said.

“Because you’ve got to rely on the chain of command to change the culture, and so I don’t want to take away a club they have, which is the threat of prosecution or going to a court-martial.”

Levin’s plan threatens to derail Gillibrand’s proposal, which has attracted lots of public attention and the support of advocates but has divided the Senate.

Gillibrand’s bill has attracted 24 co-sponsors as of Tuesday, including four Republicans. But it has failed to gain the support of the senior leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Levin and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

Military leaders also expressed uniform opposition to removing sexual assault cases from the chain of command during a committee hearing last week.

Gillibrand, who is chairwoman of the Armed Services Personnel subcommittee, included in her markup the provision that gives military prosecutors — and not commanders — the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other major criminal cases.

The subcommittee passed its mark with Gillibrand’s measure by voice vote on Tuesday.

But Levin’s plan could replace her proposal in the full committee’s mark on Wednesday. The chairman took the rare step of opening up just the sexual assault debate of the authorization bill to the public on Wednesday.

Levin said the proposal would subject any decision a commander makes not to prosecute a sexual assault case to review by the next highest level of command. It would also make retaliation against sexual assault victims a crime.

The committee is also expected to include a change to the military’s judicial code to strip commanders’ ability to overturn guilty verdicts in a post-trial review, which the House Armed Services Committee also adopted.

There has been broad outrage in Congress over military sexual assault in recent months amid a series of incidents and a report estimating there were 26,000 assaults last year, up from 19,000.

President Obama has called on the military to do more to combat the problem, although the White House has not weighed in on Gillibrand’s proposal.

This story was updated at 2:38 p.m.