Kirsten Gillibrand Is Near Yet So Far on Assault Bill

The New York Democrat has majority support in the Senate — but not enough yet to get past a filibuster.

WASHINGTON, DC -: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is still asking for votes for her military sexual assault reform. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
Feb. 27, 2014, 1:24 p.m.

Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand is look­ing for sen­at­ors who would al­low her mil­it­ary sexu­al-as­sault bill to pass even if they don’t vote for it dir­ectly.

The New York Demo­crat’s con­tro­ver­sial bill — which would take away com­mand­ers’ power to de­cide which sexu­al-as­sault cases are pro­sec­uted — has been gran­ted a vote by lead­ers of both parties and could come to the floor as soon as next week.

Gil­librand has 55 pub­licly de­clared sup­port­ers for her le­gis­la­tion, and if she could con­vince 60 mem­bers to vote yes on a pro­ced­ur­al vote to take up her bill, it could pass with a simple ma­jor­ity us­ing the votes she already has racked up.

A vic­tory for Gil­librand has been con­sidered a long shot and re­mains a chal­lenge, but there is a strategy in sight and she has already de­fied ex­pect­a­tions. She has man­aged to at­tract the sup­port from a ma­jor­ity of the Sen­ate, des­pite the Pentagon’s vo­ci­fer­ous ob­jec­tions and amid the op­pos­i­tion of Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee lead­ers.

Gil­librand’s bill has an un­usu­al co­ali­tion of some of the most mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and some of the tea-party stars like Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. She has a ma­jor­ity of Demo­crats but is miss­ing the sup­port of some cru­cial Armed Ser­vices mem­bers such as Chair­man Carl Lev­in of Michigan and the com­mit­tee’s heir ap­par­ent, Jack Reed of Rhode Is­land.

One of the most out­spoken op­pon­ents of Gil­librand is fel­low Demo­crat Claire Mc­Caskill, who has been fight­ing Gil­librand’s le­gis­la­tion with a non­con­tro­ver­sial al­tern­at­ive that would al­low sexu­al-as­sault vic­tims to provide in­put in­to their pro­sec­u­tions and im­prove the ac­count­ab­il­ity of the com­mand­er, among oth­er pro­vi­sions.

Mc­Caskill is more seni­or than Gil­librand on Armed Ser­vices and has a long his­tory of work­ing to com­bat sexu­al as­sault, in­clud­ing dur­ing her pre­vi­ous ca­reer as a pro­sec­utor in Mis­souri spe­cial­iz­ing in such crimes. She has been us­ing her clout to lobby col­leagues hard to op­pose the Gil­librand bill.

Both the Gil­librand and Mc­Caskill bills have been prom­ised votes after be­ing stalled in the Sen­ate for months. Un­der the terms of an agree­ment reached between Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, they will re­ceive an ex­ped­ited de­bate and are ex­pec­ted to be up for votes some­time in March be­fore the next re­cess.

Gil­librand’s strategy is par­tic­u­larly tough since Mc­Caskill’s bill — which en­joys little if any op­pos­i­tion — would re­ceive its own pro­ced­ur­al vote, so there’s no way for Gil­librand to piggy­back off of the oth­er bill’s pop­ular­ity.

Gil­librand, who clearly has a ves­ted in­terest in chan­nel­ing mo­mentum, says she is con­fid­ent she can suc­ceed in find­ing 60 votes for clo­ture to pass her bill. “Yes, I think it will,” she said.

Some­times mem­bers are will­ing to vote yes to pro­ceed to a bill they don’t want to vote for, which Iowa Re­pub­lic­an Chuck Grass­ley says “is a way of hav­ing your cake and eat­ing it too.”

But those are usu­ally pretty rare cir­cum­stances on meas­ures mem­bers be­lieve must pass but do not want to at­tach their name to.

A re­cent ex­ample is the Sen­ate’s vote on the debt ceil­ing. Earli­er this month, 12 Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors joined Demo­crats on a cru­cial pro­ced­ur­al vote of 67-31 that en­sured the debt ceil­ing was raised, even though sen­at­ors ap­proved that meas­ure on a party line vote of only 55-43. But that vote held the na­tion’s bor­row­ing au­thor­ity in the bal­ance and its fail­ure could have caused mar­ket may­hem.

The strategy would not be an easy one to pull off, but even some Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ents say it is feas­ible.

“It’s pos­sible be­cause she’s really worked hard on it, so I’d say maybe,” said GOP Sen. John Ho­even of North Dakota, who does not sup­port her bill. “But if not, the reas­on would be people want to have some time to see how some of the pro­vi­sions that were just en­acted work…. It’s too soon.”

It’s not clear that Gil­librand can make such a dy­nam­ic work to her ad­vant­age be­cause many mem­bers equate the vote on the pro­ced­ure with de­cid­ing a bill’s fate.

“Usu­ally mem­bers treat the clo­ture vote as the vote,” said Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, most mem­bers rate Gil­librand’s odds of suc­cess in line with their own in­terests, with sup­port­ers say­ing it is con­ceiv­able it could pass and op­pon­ents shoot­ing it down.

“I doubt it,” said Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Jeff Ses­sions of Alabama, who is op­posed to the bill. “The mil­it­ary fully un­der­stands the ser­i­ous­ness of the is­sue and is mak­ing many changes.”¦ The whole cul­ture of the mil­it­ary is that the com­mand­er is re­spons­ible for his unit, and when you bring in people out­side to be in­volved in dis­cip­line and lead­er­ship, you’ve eroded a clas­sic­al mil­it­ary prin­ciple that’s fun­da­ment­al.”

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