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Gillibrand makes new push for military sexual assault reform

Gillibrand makes new push for military sexual assault reform
© Greg Nash

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandAustin tight lipped on whether to take sexual assault cases out of commanders' hands Gillibrand touts legislation to lower drug costs: This idea 'is deeply bipartisan' A bipartisan effort to prevent the scourge of sexual assault in the armed forces MORE (D-N.Y.) on Thursday unveiled her latest attempt to curtail sexual assault in the military, proposing a bill that would remove decisions about whether to prosecute such cases from the hands of military commanders.

“Sexual assault in the military is an epidemic, it has been for a very long time,” Gillibrand said alongside several senators from both parties at a news conference.

“We owe it to our service members to do more to prevent these crimes and to properly prosecute them when they occur.”

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Gillibrand for eight years has attempted to push a bill that would remove military commanders from deciding on sexual assault cases. She argues having commanders involved in the decision has prevented service members from coming forward out of fear of retaliation and emboldened attackers, as those who commit such crimes rarely face punishment.

The Pentagon and Gillibrand's fellow lawmakers for years have pushed back on the proposal, claiming taking such decisions out of the commanders' hands would create a breakdown in unit cohesion.

But her latest legislation, the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act  which would require specially trained military prosecutors, not commanders, to decide whether to try assault crimes in the military  has gained a level of support her past efforts have failed to reach.

“This new coalition will make the difference of passing this legislation, I am certain of it,” Gillibrand said while flanked by Sens. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyOn The Money: Biden says workers can't turn down job and get benefits | Treasury launches state and local aid | Businesses jump into vax push Grassley criticizes Biden's proposal to provide IRS with B The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Infrastructure, Cheney ouster on deck as Congress returns MORE (R-Iowa), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstGraham warns about trying to 'drive' Trump from GOP: 'Half the people will leave' The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate braces for daylong brawl on elections bill Top female GOP senator compares Cheney ousting to 'cancel culture' MORE (R-Iowa), Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenCongress may force Biden to stop Russia's Nord Stream 2 pipeline Kabul attack spurs fears over fate of Afghan women as US exits Bowser on Manchin's DC statehood stance: He's 'not right' MORE (D-N.H.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mark KellyMark KellyArizona governor signs controversial election bill into law Ex-McSally aide pleads guilty to stealing over 0K in campaign funds Bowser on Manchin's DC statehood stance: He's 'not right' MORE (D-Ariz.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate panel deadlocks in vote on sweeping elections bill Senate descends into hours-long fight over elections bill Ocasio-Cortez hits Yang over scrapped Eid event: 'Utterly shameful' MORE (R-Texas).  

Ernst, a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel and sexual assault survivor who previously opposed taking the decision out of the chain of command, now backs the bill after she worked with Gillibrand to add several prevention efforts to it, including better training for commanders and increased physical security measures.

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“It has been an evolution, and I’ve made it very clear that I have been very torn about this in the past,” Ernst said Thursday of her decision to support the bill.

“I said I would always keep an open mind and if we didn’t see things change then perhaps it would be time to make those changes. And so I have kept an open mind.”

Gillibrand, who has approached Ernst for years to gain her support, said the backing from the sole female Republican senator who has seen combat was “extremely meaningful.”

Ernst’s aid is also likely to attract other lawmakers who voted against a similar bill from Gillibrand in 2014.

Sens. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineHow leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force Manchin on collision course with Warren, Sanders On The Money: Incomes, consumer spending soared in March | Harris, senators work behind scenes on jobs package | Biden cancels some border wall construction MORE (D-Va.), Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerOvernight Defense: Former Pentagon chief to testify about Capitol riot Wednesday | Senate Intelligence chairman wants Biden to review US Space Command move Wyden: Funding infrastructure with gas tax hike a 'big mistake' Senate Intelligence chairman wants Biden to review US Space Command move MORE (D-Va.), Angus KingAngus KingSenate panel deadlocks in vote on sweeping elections bill Senate descends into hours-long fight over elections bill Overnight Energy: 5 takeaways from the Colonial Pipeline attack | Colonial aims to 'substantially' restore pipeline operations by end of week | Three questions about Biden's conservation goals MORE (I-Maine) and Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterAmericans for Prosperity launches campaign targeting six Democrats to oppose ending filibuster Overnight Defense: Gillibrand makes new push for military sexual assault reform | US troops begin leaving Afghanistan | Biden budget delay pushes back annual defense policy bill Gillibrand makes new push for military sexual assault reform MORE (D-Mont.) previously opposed the measure but now support the new legislation.

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“You’re seeing people giving this fair consideration,” Gillibrand said of the shift. 

The bill also is likely to be bolstered by a change in the military while under the purview of Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Former Pentagon chief to testify about Capitol riot Wednesday | Senate Intelligence chairman wants Biden to review US Space Command move Senate Intelligence chairman wants Biden to review US Space Command move The best defense? An alternative to all-out war or nothing MORE, who has pledged to prioritize combating sexual assault and harassment in the services and earlier this year appointed an independent panel to look at the issue. 

That panel advised Austin to go in a similar direction as Gillibrand’s bill and designate independent judge advocates, who would report to a civilian-led Office of the Chief Special Victim Prosecutor, to decide whether to charge someone in certain cases of special victims crimes including sexual assault, sexual harassment and possibly certain hate crimes.

The panel also advised that sexual harassment claims be looked into by those outside the chain of command. Should such a charge be found true, the military should immediately begin the process of discharging the perpetrator from the force while other legal proceedings play out. 

Austin is currently reviewing the recommendations and has indicated he is open to such changes, but Congress must pass legislation to change military law.

“At some point, senators decide they have to do their jobs as overseers of the executive branch. ... This is now our job because it is necessary to create a better, more professional system where justice is possible,” Gillibrand said.