Gillibrand’s Moment of Truth on Sexual Assault

The Democrat is getting her long sought-after vote Thursday for a measure to reshape the way the military deals with assault accusations, but she may leave the floor empty-handed.

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
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Stacy Kaper
March 6, 2014, 7:36 a.m.

The Sen­ate is fi­nally ready to take up a con­tro­ver­sial bill from Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand aimed at fight­ing mil­it­ary sexu­al as­sault, but though the New York Demo­crat has been beg­ging party lead­er­ship for a vote on the meas­ure for months, it’s un­clear that she has the votes needed to pass it.

Gil­librand’s ma­jor hurdle re­mains con­vin­cing 60 col­leagues to vote yes on clo­ture — a pro­ced­ur­al hurdle be­fore the meas­ure would get a fi­nal vote. Gil­librand has 55 pub­licly de­clared sup­port­ers for her le­gis­la­tion, which would over­haul the mil­it­ary justice sys­tem by strip­ping com­mand­ers of the power to choose which cases are pro­sec­uted.

Gil­librand re­mains in­sist­ent she has more than 55 votes lined up and is “op­tim­ist­ic” she can get over the clo­ture hurdle, but seni­or Sen­ate aides said the vote could go either way.

Gil­librand’s of­fice is ask­ing her sup­port­ers to reach out to Re­pub­lic­ans Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Tom Coburn of Ok­lahoma, Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, Mike En­zi of Wyom­ing, Thad Co­chran of Mis­sis­sippi, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania to back the le­gis­la­tion.

Oth­er sen­at­ors Gil­librand’s of­fice is ask­ing her sup­port­ers to tar­get are op­pon­ents who might be will­ing to sup­port clo­ture to al­low the bill to pass with a simple ma­jor­ity: Demo­crats Mark Warner of Vir­gin­ia, Joe Manchin of West Vir­gin­ia, Bill Nel­son of Flor­ida, Shel­don White­house of Rhode Is­land, Tim Kaine of Vir­gin­ia, and in­de­pend­ent An­gus King of Maine.

Gil­librand’s bill is widely sup­por­ted by vic­tim-ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tions who have made the re­form their top pri­or­ity, but it is adam­antly op­posed by the Pentagon’s top brass, who ar­gue it would un­der­mine com­mand­ers’ abil­ity to lead.

Com­plic­at­ing Gil­librand’s bid is a rival meas­ure aimed at ad­dress­ing mil­it­ary sexu­al as­sault from Mis­souri Demo­crat Claire Mc­Caskill.

Mc­Caskill’s meas­ure, which is also ex­pec­ted to be voted on Thursday, in­cludes a pack­age of non­con­tro­ver­sial re­forms and is ex­pec­ted to pass with a wide, bi­par­tis­an ma­jor­ity.

Mc­Caskill’s re­form meas­ures would elim­in­ate a sol­dier’s good mil­it­ary char­ac­ter from be­ing con­sidered part of his de­fense. It would al­low vic­tim in­put in pro­sec­u­tions, al­low sexu­al-as­sault vic­tims to chal­lenge un­fair dis­charge from the ser­vice, make it easi­er for pro­sec­utors to re­com­mend court mar­tials for sexu­al-as­sault cases, in­crease com­mand­er ac­count­ab­il­ity, and ex­tend re­cently ad­op­ted re­forms to mil­it­ary ser­vice academies.

Mc­Caskill ar­gues her bill ad­dresses the is­sue bet­ter than Gil­librand’s, and is not sup­port­ing the rival meas­ure.

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