Gillibrand wants vote on military sex assault bill ‘right away’

December 10, 2013
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), left. (AP)
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) (AP)

The lead sponsor of an ambitious proposal to overhaul how the Pentagon handles allegations of sexual assault and rape says she's pushing to hold a vote on the plan before the end of the year.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) says she has assurances from Senate Democratic leaders that her plan to strip military commanders of any involvement in reviewing allegations of assault and rape will earn a vote at some point in the coming weeks, even though it will not be added to the annual defense policy bill set to be passed by Congress in the coming days.

With just a few days left on the congressional calendar, leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees agreed Monday to quickly advance a version of the National Defense Authorization Act this week without consideration of dozens of amendments proposed by senators.

While many senators introduced amendments dealing with the transfer of terrorism detainees, sanctions against Iran, funding for efforts to eradicate Syria of chemical weapons and other defense policy matters, Gillibrand's proposal has earned outsized attention in recent months.

On Tuesday she said that "I have an assurance that we will get a vote, just not when we will get a vote."

"My goal is to get a vote right away, and the reason is that the men and women who have survived these atrocities have taken so much time at great personal expense to be here, to tell their stories and I think they deserve a vote," Gillibrand told reporters. "So I’d like to get a vote sooner rather than later, but I will work with the majority leader to find a time that fits in the schedule."

But the current schedule -- and a litany of unresolved issues -- likely means that a vote on Gillibrand's proposal won't come until the Senate returns to Washington in January.

Regardless, the NDAA already is poised to enact the most sweeping changes to military personnel policy in more than 50 years. If passed, the bill will end the statute of limitations on assault and rape allegations; require the dishonorable discharge or dismissal of anyone convicted of sexual assault; and stop military commanders from reversing decisions made by military prosecutors.

In addition to Gillibrand, other lawmakers, including Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), also are hoping to modify the defense measure to include a few more changes to how military leaders deal with assault and rape cases. McCaskill is pushing a proposal that would require dropping the “good soldier” defense from military evidence rules in sexual assault and rape cases unless a defendant’s military character is directly relevant to the alleged crime. She also wants more stringent civilian review of disagreements between military prosecutors and commanders.

McCaskill said it was "very disappointing" that lawmakers agreed to advance the defense bill without consideration of more amendments -- but she reminded reporters that the bill is already set to make historic reforms.

"This will be the most victim-friendly organization in the world," she said. "There is no system – the civil, criminal justice system or any other system in the world – that gives every victim their own lawyer at the moment of reporting. And of course reporting doesn’t have to occur in the chain of command. So now victims are going to have their own counsel who can guide them, support them."

Nearly six in 10 Americans believe that decisions on whether to prosecute allegations of sexual assault in the U.S. military should be made by an independent group of military prosecutors instead of within the military chain of command, according to a November Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Support for stripping commanders of responsibility over assault and rape cases crosses all gender, racial, political and ideological divisions. A majority of men (59 percent) and women (59 percent) support the move as do a majority of liberals (69 percent), moderates (65 percent) and a plurality of conservatives (48 percent).

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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Anne Bartlett · December 10, 2013