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Cruz, Paul sign on to Gillibrand's effort to curb military sexual assault

A high-profile Democrat is getting a boost from an unlikely corner of the Republican caucus in the effort to curb sexual assault in the United States military. 

Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas – two Republicans beloved by the Tea Party -- are joining Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in the effort to reduce assaults by removing such cases from the chain of command, giving the New York Democrat a bipartisan boost as she lobbies for a vote on her proposal despite tough opposition from the Pentagon.

“Some say that we have no bipartisan cooperation around here, and I disagree,” Paul said in a joint press conference with Gillibrand, Cruz, and others from both sides of the aisle. “I think this is a great example of how people from both sides come together and are willing to work on a problem and look honestly at what the problem is.”

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Saying that he and Gillibrand have worked together to tweak the legislation, he added “I see no reason that conservatives shouldn’t support this.”

Gillibrand -- who, like both Cruz and Paul, is often mentioned as a possible contender in the 2016 presidential race -- has been pushing the legislation, which would upend the current system used by the military to prosecute sexual assault cases. She and her 32 co-sponsors say that victims fear retaliation for reporting sexual assault cases to supervisors in their chain of command.

But her effort faces opposition from the Pentagon, with military brass arguing that changing the accountability of supervisors in such cases would undermine the trust crucial to the armed services.

Cruz said that he was convinced by the arguments made during debate in the Armed Services Committee, where her proposal failed last month. Opponents favor an alternative proposal that would eliminate the power of commanders to overturn sexual assault convictions but would not change the chain of command.

“I was persuaded by Sen. Gillibrand’s exceptionally passionate and able advocacy,” he said.

The two Republicans are not the first to sign on to Gillibrand’s effort. Sens. Chuck Grassley, Susan Collins, Mike Johanns, and Lisa Murkowski are also on board.

But the support from a conservative wing of the GOP sometimes critical of the Pentagon is likely to aid Gillibrand in pushing to schedule a vote on the measure.

“This is not a Democratic idea. It is not a Republican idea," Gillibrand said. "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."

But some Republican senators say that the new GOP support doesn't mean that Gillibrand's legislation should come to a vote. 

"I don't think it can move forward," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., during an appearance on MSNBC's The Daily Rundown. 

"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," he added. "It would be unnecessary to resolve the problem and would be harmful, I think, to good order and discipline in the military."

And conservative commentator Bill Kristol slammed Cruz and Paul in a column Tuesday, calling the two lawmakers "anti-military" for supporting the measure to address what he called a sexual assault "pseudo-crisis." 

The joint press conference came shortly before leaders of both parties reached a deal after a fierce debate over executive nominees and possible changes to Senate rules.