McCaskill Makes It Personal in Battle Over Military Assaults

Senator Claire McCaskill, D-MO, speaks during a press conference announcing legislation on wartime contracting March 1, 2012 in the Senate Radio-Television Gallery of the Capitol in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
Nov. 14, 2013, 6:58 p.m.

The fight over le­gis­la­tion to com­bat mil­it­ary sexu­al as­saults is get­ting more tense.

Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill, D-Mo., the No. 4 Demo­crat on the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, who has long been a lead­er on sexu­al as­sault is­sues, said she is frus­trated that re­forms she has cham­pioned have not got­ten more cred­it. And she ap­pears miffed about the at­ten­tion rival Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand, D-N.Y., is get­ting.

“I’m frus­trated that the re­forms that we have done have not got­ten the at­ten­tion they de­serve be­cause they are amaz­ing and it’s go­ing to make a huge dif­fer­ence,” Mc­Caskill said Thursday. “I’m not sure that I’ve done so well at the pub­lic re­la­tions on this; I’ll give that to her,” she said of Gil­librand.

Mc­Caskill’s com­ments came at a press con­fer­ence where she was joined by two oth­er wo­men on the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Deb Fisc­her, R-Neb., in cri­ti­ciz­ing the Gil­librand pro­pos­al and pro­mot­ing more mod­er­ate re­forms.

Gil­librand is pur­su­ing an amend­ment to the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill that would rad­ic­ally re­form the mil­it­ary justice sys­tem by tak­ing the de­cision of wheth­er to pro­sec­ute mil­it­ary sexu­al as­saults out of the chain of com­mand.

Gil­librand’s bill is favored by vic­tim ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tions and is adam­antly op­posed by the Pentagon and Armed Ser­vices lead­ers on both sides of the aisle.

But one of Gil­librand’s most damning op­pon­ents might be Mc­Caskill. The first fe­male sen­at­or from Mis­souri is a former courtroom pro­sec­utor who spe­cial­ized in sex crimes, helped es­tab­lish her state’s first do­mest­ic/sexu­al vi­ol­ence unit, is more seni­or on Armed Ser­vices, and is com­ing out swinging hard against a fel­low Demo­crat.

“Some­times it’s not easy to do what you think is right on the policy when the polit­ics are hard,” said Mc­Caskill, flanked by Ayotte and Fisc­her. “I’m very proud of my col­leagues to have the cour­age to stand here on policy and sub­stance as op­posed to, I think, the easi­er path of de­cid­ing this is a win­ner-and-loser ar­gu­ment, with wo­men on one side and men on the oth­er. That does this is­sue and vic­tims a great dis­ser­vice.”

For her part, Gil­librand said that she and Mc­Caskill prob­ably agree on 11 out of 12 re­forms and that she re­spects her work.

“It is not per­son­al for me,” she said. “Sen­at­or Mc­Caskill has spent months on this is­sue. She cares deeply. We just dis­agree on this one is­sue. And I’m fight­ing for it be­cause I think it will make the dif­fer­ence … in more re­port­ing, more cases go­ing to tri­al, and more con­vic­tions.”

Mc­Caskill’s press con­fer­ence came the day after Gil­librand an­nounced she is con­sid­er­ing chan­ging her bill to lim­it its pro­posed pro­sec­u­tion sys­tem to only sexu­al as­saults and rape. That would nar­row it from cov­er­ing all ma­jor crimes con­sidered a felony in the civil justice sys­tem, as it is cur­rently struc­tured.

Mc­Caskill took blatant swipes at Gil­librand’s ap­proach Thursday.

“I will say that the goal­posts keep mov­ing,” she said.

“For us it’s about the policy and it’s not as much about vote-count­ing. We are not chan­ging our pro­vi­sions to try to fig­ure out ways to get more votes. We are try­ing to stay fo­cused on what’s best for vic­tims,” she said.

Mc­Caskill ar­gued that be­cause com­mand­ers would be stripped of the de­cision to pro­sec­ute in Gil­librand’s bill, the meas­ure would fail to hold them ac­count­able.

“We just had a fun­da­ment­al policy dif­fer­ence on wheth­er or not it was go­ing to help vic­tims more to hold the com­mand­er ac­count­able or to al­low them to walk away,” she said.

Mc­Caskill’s tem­per flared hot on this is­sue in Ju­ly when Pro­tect Our De­fend­ers, a vic­tim ad­vocacy group, ran an ad in the St. Louis Post-Dis­patch, call­ing her an obstacle to re­form, which she called “un­fair.”

Greg Jac­ob, the policy dir­ect­or with the Ser­vice Wo­men’s Ac­tion Net­work, said he won­ders if that caused Mc­Caskill to feel the need to re­as­sert her­self as a lead­er on the is­sue.

“I don’t know if there have been con­ver­sa­tions go­ing on and Mc­Caskill feels she has to kind of dig her heels in and re­af­firm that she is a lead­er and ad­voc­ate on this, be­cause the re­cord clearly shows that she has been quite ef­fect­ive and very, very good…. She’s still a play­er here, so I don’t know what kind of stuff is go­ing on that would make her feel that way,” Jac­ob said.

He ad­ded that both Mc­Caskill and Gil­librand have con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence. Mc­Caskill has a his­tory work­ing on these is­sues; Gil­librand is the chair­wo­man of the Per­son­nel Sub­com­mit­tee with jur­is­dic­tion, and she has launched a massive cam­paign to talk to every sen­at­or she can to sup­port her bill.

“Wheth­er or not one has more juice than the oth­er in the com­mit­tee—that is the dy­nam­ic,” he said.

The meas­ures that Mc­Caskill wants more cred­it for in the de­fense bill had wide sup­port, in­clud­ing from Gil­librand. They would take away com­mand­ers’ abil­ity to over­turn con­vic­tions and provide a spe­cial coun­sel to provide in­de­pend­ent leg­al ad­vice to vic­tims. The amend­ment Mc­Caskill wants to add to the bill would al­low sexu­al as­sault vic­tims to chal­lenge un­fair dis­charges and would add ad­di­tion­al checks to com­mand­ers’ pro­sec­u­tion de­cisions. It is co­sponsored by Ayotte and Fisc­her and has the sup­port of Armed Ser­vices Chair­man Carl Lev­in, D-Mich. Mc­Caskill said she ex­pects uni­form sup­port across the Sen­ate and would be “stunned” if Gil­librand did not also sup­port it.

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