WASHINGTON — Legislation to reform the military's rules for handling sexual assault claims has advanced a key step in the Senate but faces major obstacles as two top senators remain opposed.
The measure, championed by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, was passed out of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel on Tuesday morning with five senators supporting and only one, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., objecting. The reforms are on track to be included in the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which sets defense policy for the upcoming fiscal year.
The measure would remove investigations into allegations of sexual assault and other serious crimes from the chain of command and give them to independent military prosecutors to handle.
The legislation is an effort to combat an ongoing surge in sexual assault complaints in the military in recent years. More than 20,000 service members said they were sexually assaulted in the military in 2018, according to Department of Defense surveys.
The vote tally out of the committee reflected support for the measure within the Senate as a whole, where 66 senators have signed on as co-sponsors. But it also has some staunch and powerful bipartisan opposition. Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., and the Ranking Republican, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, have repeatedly registered their opposition to the legislation.
They have thrown their support behind a scaled down version of the proposal, backed by some Defense Department brass, that would address only sexual assault but leave all serious crimes — including murder and other felonies — to be addressed within the traditional chain of command.
“There will certainly be many attempts" to derail this version of the legislation, Gillibrand told NBC News. "And I hope to defeat all those attempts.”
Gillibrand and Ernst fear that despite support from more than two-thirds of the Senate that Reed and Inhofe will take the measure out of the massive defense bill at the last minute during an expected conference committee with the House version of its bill later this year.
When asked if they will remove the legislation, Inhofe said, “Well, we’re deciding that now.”
At the same time, Gillibrand and Ernst are continuing to push for their measure to be separated from the bigger defense bill and voted on separately. Gillibrand said Tuesday that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told her that he will hold a vote on the measure by the end of the year. “We’ll have a vote,” she said.
After years of working on the issue, Gillibrand and Ernst reached bipartisan agreement on the legislation earlier this year. The full Senate Armed Services Committee will complete its mark up of the National Defense Authorization Act later this week.