Why the Senate May Do Nothing About Sexual Assaults in the Military

Missouri Democrat Senator Claire McCaskill questions a panel of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their legal counsels, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, Chief of Staff of the Army General Raymond Odierno, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh III and Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Robert Papp Jr., as they testify regarding sexual assaults in the military during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, June 4, 2013.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Dec. 2, 2013, 4:18 p.m.

After many months, the mount­ing cam­paign to pres­sure law­makers and the De­fense De­part­ment to rad­ic­ally re­form the mil­it­ary justice sys­tem is hit­ting a make-or-break mo­ment.

Highly an­ti­cip­ated Sen­ate votes on the re­forms are in doubt be­cause of an im­passe over the an­nu­al de­fense bill and flar­ing ten­sions over di­vis­ive changes to Sen­ate rules. The situ­ation has re­form ad­voc­ates in­tensi­fy­ing their ef­forts, fear­ful that their mo­ment is slip­ping away.

“We are really doub­ling down our ef­forts,” said Paula Cough­lin, who was the whistle-blower in the Tail­hook scan­dal and now is an ad­vis­ory board mem­ber at the ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tion Pro­tect Our De­fend­ers. “We are not back­ing down. This is not over.”

Ad­voc­ates are tar­get­ing 13 key un­de­cided sen­at­ors with in­tense lob­by­ing cam­paigns in their states and on Cap­it­ol Hill, in­clud­ing en­list­ing the per­son­al stor­ies of more than 400 mil­it­ary sexu­al-as­sault sur­viv­ors, pub­lish­ing ed­it­or­i­als in key loc­al news­pa­pers na­tion­wide, and reach­ing out to more than 10,000 fol­low­ers via email and so­cial me­dia.

At stake are com­pet­ing re­form meas­ures by Sens. Kirsten Gil­librand, D-N.Y., and Claire Mc­Caskill, D-Mo. The Gil­librand amend­ment would take the de­cision of wheth­er to pro­sec­ute sexu­al as­saults out of the chain of com­mand but keep the leg­al pro­cess with­in the mil­it­ary. Mc­Caskill is fight­ing the Gil­librand le­gis­la­tion, pro­pos­ing a mod­est al­tern­at­ive pack­age of less con­tro­ver­sial re­forms.

Votes on both meas­ures were called off be­fore the Sen­ate broke for re­cess be­cause of an on­go­ing fight over amend­ments to the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill. With no agree­ment in sight, pro­spects for these votes are dim­ming — and time is rap­idly run­ning out for the Sen­ate to act this year.

“If it’s not in the news, it’s not go­ing to make it onto a sen­at­or’s desk,” said Cough­lin, who au­thored an ed­it­or­i­al mak­ing a per­son­al ap­peal to Sens. Bill Nel­son and Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida and sent an email let­ter to sup­port­ers, ur­ging them to con­tin­ue fight­ing for change.

Both Gil­librand and Mc­Caskill are con­tinu­ing to push for votes on their meas­ures, and both have in­tro­duced their amend­ments as stand-alone bills. The Gil­librand bill has been filed un­der a pro­ced­ure known as Rule 14, which would al­low Sen­ate lead­ers to ex­ped­ite it and bring it dir­ectly to the floor for ac­tion on its own.

“For the sen­at­or’s part, she is con­tinu­ing to talk and meet with sen­at­ors to garner their sup­port,” said Beth­any Less­er, a Gil­librand spokes­wo­man.

But ana­lysts, Sen­ate aides, and even re­form ad­voc­ates ac­know­ledge that it is in­creas­ingly un­likely that ad­di­tion­al re­forms will get votes this year un­less they come up as amend­ments to the em­battled de­fense bill. And some ob­serv­ers cast doubt on that as well.

“The out­look for ad­di­tion­al amend­ments to the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act doesn’t look prom­ising,” said Drew Pusateri, a Mc­Caskill spokes­man.

Al­though 53 sen­at­ors have pub­licly an­nounced sup­port for Gil­librand’s meas­ure, ad­voc­ates in­sist they would have at least 57 votes, and they ar­gue that even an out­come that failed to reach the 60 votes re­quired for pas­sage would help ad­vance the is­sue next year.

“We really want to see a vote on this bill,” said Greg Jac­ob, policy dir­ect­or at the Ser­vice Wo­men’s Ac­tion Net­work. “That’s pretty crit­ic­al. Even if it doesn’t pass, hav­ing a sol­id up-or-down vote on the bill is really help­ful — be­cause when the bill gets re­in­tro­duced, we know who we need to get the next time around.”

There re­mains a sol­id band of un­declared law­makers who see no up­side to choos­ing between as­sault vic­tims and the Pentagon.

“Ob­vi­ously, people who are op­posed to it or think it is a bad idea might choose to just try to not have the vote, be­cause then you don’t put people on re­cord and you don’t risk hav­ing the out­come be what you didn’t want,” said Mi­chael O’Han­lon, a seni­or fel­low with the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

“I wouldn’t be at all sur­prised if this is the kind of thing that gets lost in the mor­ass,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s seen as a top-tier is­sue by the pub­lic at large.”

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