Defense bill renews fight over military sexual assault
© Greg Nash

Senators are pledging to use an annual defense policy bill to renew a fight over prosecutions of military sexual assault.

"We know far more now about the extent of the military sexual assault problem than we did a year ago, and it's clear that nothing has changed," Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandEx-officials voice deep concerns over new Pentagon UFO unit Paid leave advocates ramping up the pressure on Manchin and Schumer Gillibrand, bipartisan lawmakers push to keep military justice overhaul in NDAA MORE (D-N.Y.) said during a press conference Tuesday.

A group of bipartisan senators lead by Gillibrand will offer the Military Justice Improvement Act as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

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The amendment requires an independent military prosecutor, instead of a military commander, to decide if a sexual assault or other serious crimes should be prosecuted.

The amendment marks the latest front in a yearslong fight by senators to take the decision-making process outside of the military chain of command. Gillibrand tried to get the legislation included last year but failed on a 50-49 vote, with 60 votes needed.

She said Tuesday that she expects to get a vote on her amendment, and she'll again need 60 votes.

"We know of the 50 we had last time and hopefully we'll have more," Gillibrand said, asked about the level of support for her amendment. "I think many senators we've spoken to are concerned, deeply concerned."

Tuesday's press conference comes after the New York Democrat released a report Monday that found the Pentagon's handling of sexual assault cases shows a "troubling command culture."

The NDAA includes changes to the military justice system, including making retaliation a standalone offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and providing training for investigating claims of retaliation linked to sexual assault.

But a bipartisan group of senators and outside groups argue that the current changes don't go far enough and that the military has shown it needs help.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyFormer Sen. Bob Dole dies at 98 Alarm grows over smash-and-grab robberies amid holiday season GOP blocks bill to expand gun background checks after Michigan school shooting MORE (R-Iowa), who supports Gillibrand's proposal, said lawmakers can get "intimidated" when they meet with military officers and "sometimes there's not enough questioning that goes on."

"This is something Congress has to decide and we can't take any more words from the Defense Department that they're going to be able to handle this," he said.

Gillibrand noted Tuesday that she's made an attempt to speak with every senator who voted against her amendment last year — including Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainDole to lie in state in Capitol Rotunda Bob Dole: A great leader of the 'Greatest Generation' The bully who pulls the levers of Trump's mind never learns MORE (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

But she noted that that President Obama could leapfrog Congress and make the change on his own, and Congress could then pass the legislation to back him up.

"I'm very frustrated with the White House," she told reporters. "I've spoken to the president directly about this issue. ... He could change the rule all by himself."