Senator Makes It Personal in Battle Over Military Assaults

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP File Photo

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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.