Paul joins Gillibrand sexual assault bill

Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulWhat the 'Bernie Sanders wing of the GOP' can teach Congress GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election How low is the bar for presidential candidates, anyway? MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday signed on to Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandMusic streamer Spotify joins Gillibrand’s push for paid family leave Gillibrand proposes sexual assault reforms for Merchant Marine Academy Podesta floated Bill Gates, Bloomberg as possible Clinton VPs MORE’s (D-N.Y.) legislation to remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command. 

Paul is the fifth Republican to co-sponsor Gillibrand’s measure, which is opposed by Pentagon leaders and the heads of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Two Republicans, Sens. Ted CruzTed Cruz56 memorable moments from a wild presidential race Is Georgia turning blue? Five takeaways from money race MORE (Texas) and David VitterDavid VitterDavid Duke gets debate slot in La. Senate race GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Trump’s implosion could cost GOP in Louisiana Senate race MORE (La.), voted for her proposal in committee but are not on the stand-alone bill. Paul and Cruz said at a press conference Tuesday that Gillibrand had won over their support. 

“I see no reason why conservatives shouldn’t support this,” Paul said. “The only thing I think standing in the way is just sort of the status quo.” 

With Paul’s backing, Gillibrand’s legislation now has 34 co-sponsors. She plans to offer it as an amendment to the Defense authorization bill on the Senate floor. 

Gillibrand still faces a long road to reach 51 votes, however, as she is fighting against a competing proposal offered by Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl LevinCarl LevinThe Fed and a return to banking simplicity What Our presidential candidates can learn from Elmo Zumwalt Will there be a 50-50 Senate next year? MORE (D-Mich.) that has the support of top Republicans on the committee. Military leaders oppose Gillibrand’s bill.

The New York senator continues to lobby her colleagues to back the bill, and her office said that Sen. Tom UdallTom UdallCourt ruling could be game changer for Dems in Nevada Tensions rise over judicial nominees Dem senator wants to change nomination rules amid Garland fight MORE (D-N.M.) had signed on Tuesday. Newly sworn-in Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeySanders, Dem senators press Obama to halt ND pipeline Senate Dems ask Obama to block Atlantic, Arctic offshore drilling Federal agency under fire for selling recalled cars MORE (D-Mass.) is also likely to back her, as he sponsored the House version of the bill.

Gillibrand’s measure would remove the decision to prosecute major criminal cases from the chain of command and place it in the hands of military prosecutors, making exceptions for military-specific crimes.

There has been broad bipartisan outrage in Congress over military sexual assault, after a Pentagon report this year estimated there were 26,000 assaults in 2012, an increase of more than a third from 2010.

Lawmakers proposed a flurry of measures in response, with Gillibrand’s going the furthest to make structural changes to the military’s judicial code.

Levin’s proposal leaves the decision to prosecute with commanders, but it adds a new layer of review by civilian leaders of the services if a commander disagrees with the prosecutor on going forward with a case.

Support for Gillibrand’s measure does not fall neatly along party lines. Her plan is opposed by Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillMcCaskill offers Trump 'Mean Girls' advice Trump's taxes bump Miss Universe from headlines Dem on NYT report: Trump 'walks away with a golden ticket' MORE (D-Mo.), who has long been a vocal advocate on the committee for sexual assault reform. Levin and McCaskill have argued that the decision to prosecute must remain with commanders so they will be held responsible for changing the culture in the military to reduce the number of sexual assaults.

“It’s commanders who make it work, because they give orders, they discipline people who violate those orders,” Levin said Tuesday at a breakfast roundtable hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “You not only want them to have the power to discipline to implement their orders, you’ve also got to hold them accountable.”

Gillibrand and her backers argue that victims aren’t coming forward and reporting the crime because they are worried about repercussions from commanders.

“If the victims do not trust the chain of command, they will not report these cases,” Gillibrand said Tuesday. “If they witnessed other people reporting and being retaliated against, if they witnessed other people being shoved out of the military because they reported these crimes, they will not trust the system that the chain of command has put into place.”

The Senate Armed Services panel voted 17-9 to strip Gillibrand’s proposal from the Defense authorization bill and replace it with Levin’s. Democrats were split 7-7 on the vote, while all Republicans besides Cruz and Vitter backed Levin’s proposal.

Cruz will be co-sponsoring Gillibrand’s bill once it is an amendment on the floor, according to a Gillibrand aide.

This story was updated at 12:19 p.m.