Democratic feud erupts over scope of military sexual assault bill
A simmering feud among top Democrats over the scope of reforms to how the military handles certain crimes, including sexual assault, spilled out into the open on Monday.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) came to the Senate floor on Monday to try to get a vote on her bipartisan bill, which has enough co-sponsors to defeat a 60-vote legislative filibuster.
“If we brought this bill to the floor today, it would pass. We have this legislation, and we have the votes. Now we just need the will to act. I urge all of my colleagues to join me in working to pass this bill as quickly as possible,” she said.
In addition to Gillibrand, Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who also have been working on the bill, spoke in favor of it from the Senate floor on Monday.
But their efforts have a formidable and influential opponent: Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has oversight over the issue.
Reed objected to a vote on Monday on Gillibrand’s bill, arguing that the issue would be incorporated into a sweeping annual defense policy bill and go through his committee instead.
“I believe that the committee must start from a base that reflects the broadest consensus possible among our members on how best to move forward and on the recommendations of [Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin’s 90-day independent review commission [IRC],” Reed said from the Senate floor.
“I understand some members would prefer there be nothing in our bill on this topic, while others feel that the IRC recommendations do not go far enough. This is the nature of compromise,” Reed added.
Under the Senate’s rules, any one senator can try to set up a vote on a bill or pass it, but any one senator can also object.
But that puts Reed at loggerheads with Gillibrand, who has for years been leading the effort in the Senate to take the chain of command out of the decision to prosecute military sexual assault cases.
Reed said that he intends to incorporate the review commission’s recommendations, which focus on sexual assault. Gillibrand’s bill, however, would go further, removing the commander from felony-level crimes, including sexual assault and murder.
Gillibrand argued that it would be “irresponsible” to cede to the IRC when senators have been studying the issue for years and that its scope was too limited. She also accused Reed and Sen. Jim Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, of pigeonholing her bill.
“When asked for a vote on this measure over the past several years, I have been denied a vote on this measure on the floor by the chairman and the ranking member. So they have been unable or unwilling to allow me to have a vote given all the bipartisan support we’ve had from the beginning,” Gillibrand said.
The public back-and-forth in the Senate on Monday came after Gillibrand and Reed had a lengthy conversation about military justice reforms on the sidelines of a Senate vote last week.
Gillibrand explained to Reed why she believed the bill had to include the broader scope, as her bipartisan bill does. She also told him that she would rather her bill come to the floor as is and that Reed could try to amend it if he had the votes.
A spokesperson for Reed declined to comment at the time about what changes he was pushing for in the bill.
But Reed put out a statement on Sunday saying that he would incorporate the IRC’s recommendations into an initial draft of the Senate’s sweeping policy bill known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in a signal that he’s not yet on board with Gillibrand’s approach. Reed is not one of the bill’s 62 co-sponsors.
Reed, speaking from the Senate floor, pledged that he would allow amendments to the defense bill during the committee process. That would allow Gillibrand to try to change it to get her language in the bill. The Senate could also theoretically consider amendments once the defense bill gets to the floor, but it typically gets bogged down amid a standoff among senators on what potential changes can get a vote.
“I believe we’ll have a robust debate and commit to ensuring that every idea and amendment brought by our committee members is given due consideration and receives a vote if that’s what the member wants,” Reed said.
Gillibrand fired back that she was worried that the bill could get watered down if it goes through a lengthy NDAA process. After the House and Senate pass their own versions of the bill, they go to a conference committee to work out their differences. Once they are finished, the final product has to pass the House and the Senate again.
“I do not want to expose this massive reform that is a generational reform to the whims of those who decide what gets taken out in conference. It’s not acceptable to me to be watered down or reduced or minimized by those in conference. And that is the risk you run by not allowing this to have a floor vote, which it deserves,” she said.
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