Gillibrand Lowers Sights on Military Sexual-Assault Campaign

Running out of routes to 60 votes, the New York Democrat is looking to the long game.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks while U.S. military leaders testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military June 4, 2013.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Jan. 15, 2014, 3:22 p.m.

Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand has long pro­jec­ted op­tim­ism in her long-shot cru­sade to over­haul the mil­it­ary’s sys­tem for ad­dress­ing sexu­al as­sault. But op­tim­ism can’t change a whip count, and now the New York Demo­crat is con­ced­ing that the ini­tial vote on her bill is un­likely to be suc­cess­ful.

In­stead, Gil­librand is look­ing longer-term, hop­ing to build off her first try to gath­er sup­port for a fu­ture at­tempt.

“I think we just hold the vote, get as close to 60 as we can, maybe reach 60, and then go from there,” Gil­librand said in an ex­clus­ive in­ter­view Wed­nes­day. “It’s a longer de­bate and it may take longer than this next vote. But I think the fact that we’ve had the time to really think through what will this re­form ac­tu­ally look like is ex­tremely mean­ing­ful.”

Gil­librand said she still ex­pects her bill — which would re­move from the chain of com­mand the de­cision of wheth­er to pro­sec­ute sexu­al as­saults and oth­er ser­i­ous crimes — will hit the floor in the first half of Feb­ru­ary.

But pro­spects of vic­tory are look­ing in­creas­ingly slim. Gil­librand has 53 sup­port­ers lined up, and Na­tion­al Journ­al re­por­ted Monday that the roster of per­suad­able law­makers is shrink­ing; only eight of 25 tar­gets are still con­sidered un­de­cided and all but one are Re­pub­lic­ans.

Gil­librand’s bid was al­ways a long shot, and she noted that even if she man­aged to work it through the Sen­ate, she would still face stiff op­pos­i­tion in the House.

Her strategy would be to try to build an over­whelm­ing num­ber of co­spon­sors to com­pel House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship to act — a tall or­der.

“If we do reach 60, then we have to start talk­ing to the House and mak­ing sure we can find 218 sig­na­tures of people who sup­port this re­form, and then we would al­low our bill to go over to the House,” she said. “But we want to show that sup­port as a way to en­cour­age Speak­er [John] Boehner to al­low for a vote on the House side.”

First, though, Gil­librand needs to nav­ig­ate the Sen­ate pro­cess, which she ad­mits will not be easy.

Gil­librand is ex­pect­ing a 60-vote threshold. Her best-case scen­ario would be that she can man­age to find a way to de­liv­er 60 votes for clo­ture to pro­ceed to the bill, and then pass the bill by a simple ma­jor­ity.

Al­though she calls that ap­proach “stand­ard,” it would re­quire agree­ments and time con­sid­er­a­tions that she ac­know­ledges she might be able to se­cure.

“That may re­quire con­sent giv­en all the time that would be al­lot­ted to do it in the full pro­cess. So if we need 60 votes still, we will work with 60 votes. Our goal is to really earn 60 votes for this meas­ure be­cause I think it is the kind of re­form that is really ne­ces­sary. It’s a long-term struc­tur­al re­form about how we cre­ate trans­par­ency and ac­count­ab­il­ity with­in the mil­it­ary for all ser­i­ous crimes.”

In the mean­time, Gil­librand is work­ing to bring in sym­path­et­ic gen­er­als to meet with un­com­mit­ted law­makers to try to help per­suade them to vote yes ahead of the vote. She is also em­ploy­ing an ad­di­tion­al ar­gu­ment that is de­signed to knock down op­pon­ents’ ar­gu­ments that com­mand­ers need to main­tain power to de­cide pro­sec­u­tions in or­der to man­age their troops.

“There was al­most a 20-year peri­od where com­mand­ers didn’t have this au­thor­ity to de­cide which cases go to tri­al for non­mil­it­ary crimes, from about 1969 to 1987 when the Su­preme Court ruled it was un­con­sti­tu­tion­al,” she said. “So dur­ing that time peri­od com­mand­ers didn’t have this au­thor­ity, but they still were able to man­age their troops’ good or­der and dis­cip­line, do their jobs of com­mand­ing and train­ing to fine ef­fect.”

Gil­librand also points to re­forms in the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act, which was just signed in­to law last month, that she helped push for­ward, but in­sists more changes are ne­ces­sary.

“They are all good first steps for­ward,” she said. “Just un­for­tu­nately they don’t ad­dress the one thing that vic­tims have asked for which is to have the de­cision point taken out of the chain of com­mand be­cause too many people didn’t re­port the crimes be­cause they feared the com­mand­ers would do noth­ing or they feared re­tali­ation.”

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