McCain Maneuvers to Lead GOP on Response to Military Sexual Assaults

Mohammad Hannon/AP

When it comes to how Congress should respond to the spiraling problem of sexual assault in the military, Sen. John McCain appears to be resuming his former role as the leading Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

The Arizona Republican is no longer the ranking member—Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., holds that title—but it is McCain, not Inhofe, who is arguing that action needs to be taken. McCain is also out in front in saying he hopes to broker a bipartisan compromise with Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., on a consensus package of bills addressing sexual assault in the armed services to include in the National Defense Authorization Act, which comes up for a vote June 12.

The committee is slated to hold a hearing Tuesday to debate several recently proposed bills, which will give McCain and Levin an opportunity to take the temperature of panel members.

"We are going to get all of these bills together and see if we can reach a consensus … on both sides: Republican and Democrat," McCain said. "First of all, action has to be taken. We are all in agreement. What those actions are specifically, we have a number of different proposals. What Senator Levin and I are talking about is trying to consolidate those and come to some agreement rather than have big fights…. I am hopeful that we can have consensus and agree on one course of action that would satisfy most of the concerns."

Inhofe, on the other hand, is particularly reluctant to take any actions that would undermine the power of the commanders who run the military justice system, and he is not eager to even consider legislation beyond the recommendations that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has made, which would remove the power of commanders to overturn sexual-assault convictions. Inhofe is urging lawmakers to wait for recommendations due in 2015 from an independent panel that Congress created in the defense act last year, which will review the military justice system.

When asked what should be done to address sexual assault in the military, Inhofe told National Journal, "There isn't anything really. They are doing it now. They already have come up with plans—the secretary of Defense did—which I thought was a good idea."

In April, The Hill quoted Inhofe as saying about sexual assault, "I'm going to put this into the record, but ... it sounds to me like there is not a serious problem here," during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Army's budget plan for fiscal year 2014. When asked whether he is part of McCain's efforts to reach a bipartisan compromise with Levin, or whether he is trying to reach his own bipartisan agreement with Levin on the issue, Inhofe told National Journal, "You really should be talking to McCain and Levin, because I'm not in on that deal.... I don't know what's been announced yet, so I hesitate to say, but yes, we are going to be working on it."

There is plenty of pushback on the Republican side of the aisle beyond Inhofe.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an Air Force judge advocate general, has argued that the culture of the military—not its justice system—is the problem, and he is vociferously opposed to Hagel's recommendation to take away the power of commanders to reverse convictions.

Given his background, Graham could prove to be influential.

McCain has said he is not sure he is willing to go as far as a bill from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would take the decision of whether to prosecute sexual assaults out of the chain of command (although her bill would keep the decision within the military), but he said he is willing to consider it and other measures that would provide greater rights for victims and make other reforms.

Ultimately, McCain and Inhofe might end up in the same place, but their posturing, approach, and leadership styles are clearly different.

McCain said the goal is to ensure the military does not tolerate sexual misconduct and to fix the system so that victims are not afraid to come forward to seek justice. His staff has met with Inhofe's and others' to discuss the issue. McCain acknowledged that other committee Republicans have sought his counsel on the issue, which he assumes is because of his military experience.

"They ask my views, yeah," he said. "Look, I was a commanding officer of a squadron at one time. We had women and men in the squadron. I have had hands-on experience with the issue. But I can tell you this: In those days, the problem in the Navy was racism, and we put in place programs in the military that virtually ended racism.… We ought to learn from the experience."

McCain said that part of his motivation to engage on the issue is to defend basic human rights, but that he also sees the problem as a long-term threat to the military.

"It is a terrible thing for so many reasons," McCain said. "One is basic treatment of human beings, our fellow citizens. But, two, what is the impact on recruitment and retention of qualified women if there is a risk of them undergoing this kind of outrage? And that's why this is really such an important issue."

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