Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York found new support for her bill that would ask military prosecutors to handle sexual assault cases in the U.S. armed forces with the goal of ensuring victims are heard.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s mission to combat the prevalence of sexual assault in the military by putting the reporting process in the hands of military prosecutors, rather than the chain of command, is gaining steam in the form of bipartisan support–a rare commodity in the Senate lately.
Tea Party favorites Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul joined Gillibrand and a host of other senators Tuesday in a press conference to voice their support for her bill, which differs markedly from versions proposed by Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Claire McCaskill.
“I have to tell you, entering the committee hearing undecided, I was persuaded by Senator Gillibrand’s exceptionally passionate and able advocacy,” Cruz told the assembled reporters. Gillibrand’s proposal failed in a committee vote last month.
They were joined by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. Each took a turn at the podium.
“It’s enough with the words,” Boxer said, citing pledges by every Secretary of Defense in the last two decades to eliminate what President Obama and current Defense Secretary Hagel have called a “scourge” on the nation’s military. “It’s enough with the empty promises. It’s time for change and Sen. Gillibrand is leading us in that charge.”
The bipartisan show of support comes amid fresh criticism of the Senate’s polarity, as Republicans and Democrats faced off over ending filibusters of presidential nominees this week.
Paul called Gillibrand’s bill “a great example” of “bipartisan cooperation.” Gillibrand said Paul’s proposed changes, which addressed violations of military law that he felt should remain under the chain of command, “were smart and made the bill smarter.”
“This is not a Democratic idea. It is not a Republican idea. It is a good idea that meets the needs of the victims, creates transparency and accountability and creates the needed objectivity that this issue deserves,” Gillibrand said.
A recent Pentagon report found that an estimated 26,000 military service members may have been sexually assaulted in the last year, with just over 3,000 cases reported and fewer than 250 convictions.
Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin’s alternative bill, which passed a committee vote last month, would trigger a formal review when military commanders decline to prosecute a sex assault case.
“Right now the [military] commanders are putting forward cases they think should be reported,” Gillibrand said, discussing her main criticisms of Levin’s bill, “but that’s only about 300 cases…Our problem is exactly as General Amos said, ‘They don’t trust us.’ [Victims] don’t trust the chain of command.”
Gillibrand and her 32 co-sponsors are aiming to bring the measure to a vote before Congress adjourns for the August recess at the end of this month. While acknowledging the gravity of sexual assault crimes in the military and their prevalence, many lawmakers aren’t ready to break with Gillibrand and her coalition on removing military commander from the chain of command.
On MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown Tuesday, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said that he does not think Gillibrand’s bill can move forward.
“We can do a lot better, but to take the commanders out of the chain of command is not a step that we need to take. It would be unnecessary to resolve the problem and would be harmful, I think, to good order and discipline in the military,” Wicker said.