7 women to watch at the military sexual assault hearing

June 4, 2013

Military and political history will be made Tuesday when all six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testify at the same time before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the rising rate of sexual assaults among members of the military.

The chiefs have told Congress in writing in recent days that they oppose or have strong reservations about a contentious bill that would reshape military law for prosecuting sexual assault and other crimes, setting up a likely clash with lawmakers who are pushing the idea.

Among those lawmakers are the record seven women who sit on the Armed Services panel and are supporting several different proposals to reshape how the Pentagon deals with sexual assault cases. The contrast -- six male military chiefs appearing before a committee stacked with more women than ever before -- will provide the latest proof of how the expanding role and influence of women in Congress is reshaping policy debates on Capitol Hill.

The numbers on sexual assaults are stark: A Pentagon survey of active-duty military personnel released this month found that 6.1 percent of women and 1.2 percent of men reported receiving “unwanted sexual contact” last year. Only a small fraction of those reported the incidents.

A recent Washington Post story noted that the women serving on Armed Services believe that their gradually increasing numbers in Congress have undoubtedly given them more political clout on the issue of sexual assaults in the ranks. There's a consensus among them that more laws are needed to tackle the problem, but disagreement over which proposals would be most effective.

Here's a quick review of the seven women on the panel -- in order of seniority -- what they've said on the topic in recent days and information on the bills they've introduced or agreed to sponsor to help address the problem.


Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), photographed April 9, 2012, in Warrensburg, Mo. (Julie Denesha for The Washington Post)

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.): A former sex crimes prosecutor, McCaskill is one of the panel's most outspoken members on this issue and is cosponsoring a bipartisan plan to overhaul how the Pentagon handles sexual assault cases.

What's she's doing about it: McCaskill's bill, cosponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Reps. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), among others, would make it more difficult to reverse convictions for sexual assault crimes; require that people found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy, or an attempt to commit any of those offenses at least be dismissed or given a dishonorable discharge from the military; and remove the five-year statute of limitations on trial by courts-martial for allegations of sexual assault and sexual assault of a child.

What's she's saying about it: “The problems the U.S. military have had dealing with this issue — whether it’s aggressively prosecuting perpetrators or effectively protecting survivors — are well chronicled and have gone on far too long,” McCaskill said recently.  “It’s time for the reforms contained in this bill, and I’m going to work with my colleagues in both chambers and in both parties to ensure that they’re enacted.”


(AP Photo/ Free Press, Zach Frailey)

Sen. Kay R. Hagan (D-N.C.): The first-term senator hails from a big military family: Her father-in-law was a two-star Marine general, her father and brother both served in the Navy and her husband, Chip, is a Vietnam War veteran, while two of her nephews have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What's she's doing about it: She's mostly focused on ensuring that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel implements changes ordered up in last year's defense authorization bill, including requirements that the military improve sexual assault prevention programs and establish two independent panels to review how the military investigates and prosecutes sex assault cases.

What's she's said about it: “This is an issue many of us have dealt with for years, and we find it unbelievably alarming that it is happening at the level it is in the military,” Hagan told us for our recent story.


Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). (Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.): She's spoken out frequently on the issue and earned a key victory last year for people seeking changes in the military's abortion policy.

What's she's done about it: She successfully sponsored an amendment to last year's defense authorization bill that ended the policy of denying women in the military health-care coverage for abortions in cases of rape or incest.

More recently, she's introduced a bill with Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) that would require the military's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response officers become “nominative” positions, which would require applicants to undergo a more thorough application, training and certification process.

What's she's said about it: "Finding the best, most qualified personnel for a position responsible for preventing sexual assault is a matter of common-sense and will pay off as we work to address the military sexual assault crisis. We’ve seen one too many reports about sexual assaults in our armed services. We have a responsibility to act and we have a responsibility to do so now.”


Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-N.Y.): Taking a page from her Senate predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gillibrand pushed for a seat on the Armed Service panel after holding a seat on the House Armed Services Committee when she served in the House.

What's she's doing about it: Gillibrand is proposing one of the most dramatic changes in military policy regarding sex crimes. Her bill would remove more serious assault-related prosecutions from the military chain of command, unless the case is uniquely military in nature, such as disobeying orders or going Absent Without Leave, according to her office.

Her proposal most worries the military chiefs and has put her at odds with other members of the Armed Services Committee, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has expressed concerns about making significant changes to the military command structure.

The bill also would bar officials from setting aside a guilty finding or changing a guilty finding to a lesser offense and any changes would require written justifications. The proposal also would permit the various military chiefs of staff to establish courts, empanel juries and choose judges to hear such cases.

Gillibrand's proposal has bipartisan and bicameral support from several lawmakers, including Collins, Shaheen and Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) and Reps. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

What's she's said about it: “It is clear from talking with victims that we must take this crisis head on and increase accountability within the system by removing the influence of the chain of command in the prosecution of intolerable crimes. Only then can the climate change and reporting of these crimes increase. Enough is enough, words are not enough, it is time to act."


Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). (washingtonpost.com)

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii): What she's doing about it: Hirono is cosponsoring Gillibrand's bill and a separate proposal introduced by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) (see below).

What she's said about it: Hirono was pretty frank about the issue when she announced support for Gillibrand's bill last month:

"Much has been said about the record number of women in the U.S. Senate and the record number of women who serve on the Armed Services Committee. And of course without minimizing the work and the commitment of our male colleagues focusing on this very important issue, I want to say that women who serve in the House and Senate bring some unique life experiences to this process. Many women, if not most women, have experienced sexual harassment or unwanted sexual advances. But because of the command structure in the military, the power component attendant to sexual harassment and worse in the military is obvious and problematic."


Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), photographed Nov. 29, 2012. (Melina Mara/Post)

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.): She's a former state attorney general who also prosecuted sex crimes.

What she's doing about it: Ayotte is cosponsoring a bill with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) that would provide people alleging sexual assault with a military lawyer; provide more funding for the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office; refer sexual assault-related cases to the general court martial level or to the next-highest authority if there's a conflict of interest in the immediate chain of command; prohibit sexual contact between instructors and trainees during and within 30 days of completion of any training programs; and ensure that sexual assault response coordinators are available to members of the National Guard and reserves at all times.

What's she's said about it: “The military has moved too slowly on this issue, and there needs to be a greater sense of urgency,” Ayotte told us for our recent story. “But to put this issue in the box as a women’s issue is to diminish it.”


Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.). (Nati Harnik/AP)

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.): What she's doing about it: A freshman senator, she's cosponsoring Shaheen's bill (see above).

What she's saying about it: "Recent news reports make it clear that we must require a higher standard for those appointed to all Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) offices -- the very individuals charged with ensuring our men and women in uniform are safe from predators in their own ranks. This bipartisan legislation advances that goal and seeks to ensure individuals of the highest caliber are placed in these critical positions."

Read more here about what these seven senators think about the rise of sexual assaults in the military -- and about what lawmakers of both congressional chambers, political parties and genders are doing to address the problem.

Election Day in New Jersey, Missouri: Today is primary day in the Garden State, but there is no drama in the governor's race, where Gov. Chris Christie (R) and state Sen. Barbara Buono (D) have been on a general election collision course for some time. The big electoral question in New Jersey right now is what will happen to Frank Lautenberg's Senate seat following his death on Monday. Murky state election laws mean it's not clear yet whether the election to replace Lautenberg will happen this year or next.

Voters also head to the polls today in Missouri's 8th district special election, where Republican Jason Smith is the heavy favorite to win the seat vacated earlier this year by Republican Jo Ann Emerson, who left to head the National Rural Electric Cooperative. The 8th is a heavily Republican district that lies in the southeastern part of the state. Polls close at 7 p.m. in Missouri.

Massachusetts ad war heats up: Massachusetts Republicans and GOP Senate nominee Gabriel Gomez are reportedly spending $400,000 on a new ad buy, while Rep. Ed Markey, the Democratic nominee, has reportedly purchased more than $600,000 in airtime of his own. This week could prove to be a crucial one; in addition to the ramped-up ad battle, the two candidates will debate for the first time on Wednesday. Election Day is June 25.

Fixbits:

The Obama administration threatened to veto spending bills unless both parties come to terms on a broader budget plan.

President Obama will nominate two female lawyers and an African-American federal judge for the  U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The Justice Department said that Attorney General Eric Holder didn't lie in recent congressional testimony.

Embattled former governor Jon Corzine broke his silence to eulogize Lautenberg.

Brent Bozell, the chairman of the conservative group ForAmerica, is calling on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to defund the IRS's Affordable Care Act office.

Across the Senate landscape, Shane Osborn (R) and Terri Lynn Land (R) are in, while Nick Preservati (D) is out.

Republican Erika Harold, Miss America 2003, is expected to announce that she will launch a primary challenge against Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.)

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said the U.S. should abolish the IRS.

Del. Donna Christensen (D) inadvertently tweeted her plans to run for governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Must-reads:

"House Republicans broken into fighting factions" -- Paul Kane, Washington Post

"Naming Lautenberg’s replacement presents Christie with tough choice" -- Paul Kane, Washington Post

"Daniel Werfel’s upfront IRS strategy wins GOP fans" -- Lauren French, Politico

"The Reason Mike Rogers Won’t Run for the Senate" -- Tim Alberta, National Journal

"Maryland governor’s race off to early start" -- John Wagner, Washington Post

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Sean Sullivan | June 3, 2013