The Senate will begin debate on a bill that sets military pay and defense policy. Capitol Hill Reporter Ed O'Keefe discusses what's ahead for Congress this week. (The Washington Post)
In a further sign of the shifting demographics of Congress, the U.S. Senate this week is poised for the first major policy dispute in recent years spearheaded by the chamber's growing number of women.

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) are leading opposing sides of a months-long disagreement over how the Defense Department should handle the reported rise of sexual assault in the ranks.

An emotionally-charged debate is expected to play out on the Senate floor in the coming days as the Senate begins considering the annual defense authorization bill that sets military policy and pay levels. The process is expected to begin this week and likely will conclude after the Thanksgiving recess.

Senators are expected to consider dozens of amendments to the bill, including proposals prompted by recent reports about the National Security Agency, others about terrorism suspects detained at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and whether to impose new sanctions on Iran -- a move favored by many senators but opposed by the Obama administration as it continues delicate negotiations with the Iranian regime over its nuclear program.

Those are serious national security concerns, but the rising number of sexual assaults -- the Pentagon estimates that as many as 26,000 service members were the targets of unwanted sexual contact last year -- has earned special attention, especially from women senators.

McCaskill and Gillibrand are two of the record 20 women now serving in the Senate and two of seven women now serving on the Armed Services Committee -- the highest tally ever.

They worked over the summer with colleagues of both genders and parties to ensure that the defense bill would include several significant changes to how the Pentagon handles sex assault crimes. Already the bill ends the statute of limitations on cases of assault or rape; strips military commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions in assault or rape cases; requires that civilians review decisions by commanders to not prosecute certain cases; makes it a crime to retaliate against victims who report a sexual assault; and requires dishonorable discharge or dismissal for anyone convicted of sexual assault.

But McCaskill and Gillibrand want to do more to end the scourge of rape and assaults -- and do not agree on what to do.

McCaskill and Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) are sponsoring an amendment that would change military rules of evidence to drop the “good soldier” defense unless a defendant’s military character is directly relevant to the crime they're accused of committing. Their plan also would require the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force to review any case in which military prosecutors recommend proceeding and a military commander disagrees. The amendment is likely to pass with bipartisan support.

Gillibrand has a proposal that goes much farther: She wants to completely strip a military commander's involvement in cases of assault or rape and turn such cases over to specialized military prosecutors. The change could add millions of dollars to the defense budget and radically alter a commander's responsibilities for good order and morale. Her plan is backed by national veterans groups, victims' advocates, 17 of the 20 women senators and an impressive bipartisan coalition including Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).

On Background: More women, better Congress? 

But McCaskill and other prominent and outspoken defense hawks strongly oppose Gillibrand's proposal. Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has sought to block the amendment from consideration. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last week suggested that Gillibrand lacks the military experience to know what should be done, while Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has threatened to filibuster the proposal.

Throughout the process, McCaskill and Gillibrand have earned plaudits from colleagues, military officials and outside advocates for their work on the issue. In public, the two senators maintain a cordial relationship and say they respectfully disagree on an issue they desperately want to resolve. But there's been sniping amongst their staffs in private -- especially as both camps circulate press reports unfavorable to the other senator.

No matter what happens, two women will have led the Senate through a significant change in military policy. With 20 women already serving in the Senate and more likely to join the ranks in the coming years, it's a sign of things to come.