Democratic Senator Blames White House in Failure of Military Sexual-Assault Bill

Charles Dharapak/AP

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand blamed the White House's lack of support for the failure of her sexual-assault bill in the Senate on Thursday, and she vowed to keep fighting to reform the military justice system.

"I made my greatest case, I advocated for this position, this reform, and the president has been very clear: He wants to end sexual assault in the military, he wants it to be further studied, and he wants to see progress and whether it's been accomplished in the next year," the New York Democrat said at a press conference after her bill went down.

When asked if she would have succeeded if President Obama had pushed for her bill and whether she was disappointed by the White House's lack of support, she quickly answered, "Yes, yes."

The legislation, which was fought mightily by the Pentagon and championed by victim-advocacy groups, would have stripped from commanders the power to decide which sexual-assault cases are prosecuted. It failed to attract the 60 votes necessary to overcome a procedural hurdle to pass the bill on a vote of 55 to 45.

Leading up to the vote, Gillibrand had said she had 55 supporters and was confident she would pick up more. Although she did indeed pick up two undecideds, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Republican Mike Enzi of Wyoming, she also lost two cosponsors: Tom Carper, D-Del., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill.

Carper voted against the bill because the president has asked the military to conduct a review of its efforts to combat sexual assault, which is due in December, according to an aide. In a statement ordering the review last year, Obama said that if current efforts do not work, then additional reforms should be considered, which was seen by many as squelching support for Gillibrand's reform.

Kirk said he believed Gillibrand's bill could make the military weaker.

"I co-sponsored Senator Gillibrand's legislation because I strongly believe that victims of sexual assault should always be protected, but ultimately supported the bipartisan McCaskill alternative because … [Gillibrand's] broad scope could jeopardize our readiness and our military stationed in the field."

Without a boost for the legislation in the Senate, it appears dead for now, particularly since similar legislation has languished in the House for so long.

A companion House bill to Gillibrand's from GOP Rep. Dan Benishek of Michigan has 71 cosponsors but has gone nowhere.

Another bill from Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California, which has stalled since it was first introduced in 2011, has 157 cosponsors. It would also remove commanders from the decision to prosecute sexual assaults but would go even further by taking such cases out of military courts.

Even though Gillibrand failed to pass her legislation, she did drum up more support than many thought possible, considering the broad opposition from the military's top brass and Armed Services Committee leaders.

Victim-advocacy groups who support the Gillibrand bill said that it was an important step to finally see a vote after so many fits and starts, but that the increased buzz on the issue still needs to be followed up with decisive legislative action.

"The attention has generated some helpful steps," said Susan Burke, an attorney who collaborates with Protect Our Defenders on sexual-assault cases. "The problem is that it is like building a house on a faulty foundation. It's a waste of time and money if you don't fix the structural problems."

Prominent fellow Democrat and former sexual-assault prosecutor Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri lobbied colleagues hard against the Gillibrand bill for months, arguing it could lead to fewer prosecutions, not more, by removing commanders' power.

She offered a noncontroversial alternative, building off reforms that were adopted last year in the defense authorization act, which is expected to sail through the Senate next week. The bill was moved ahead in a 100-0 procedural vote Thursday, but a vote on final passage was delayed for unrelated scheduling issues.

Gillibrand said she does not plan to change her bill to ease opposition, and she plans to press for its inclusion in the next defense authorization round, where she says she can continue to build support if the military fails to fix the problem.

"Many people said to me, 'Kirsten, I'm going to watch this; if it doesn't get better within the next six months, I'm with you next time,' " she said. "So for a number of people, an incremental step was more meaningful to them, and they wanted to see what happened. I think there will be many more senators who will side with us, because this is a huge problem."

For her part, McCaskill said she is hoping to fast track her reform package in the House, and if not, roll it into the next defense authorization.

Her bill would eliminate a soldier's good military character from being considered part of his defense. It would allow victim input in prosecutions, allow sexual-assault victims to challenge unfair discharge from the service, make it easier for prosecutors to recommend courts-martial for sexual-assault cases, increase commander accountability, and extend recently adopted reforms to military academies.

The debate has been full of drama and colored by butting egos. McCaskill said she did not enjoy being cast in the media as against victims, having attack ads run against her by victim groups, or battling her determined Democratic colleague.

"That's no fun," she said. "But because I was so confident that the policy was right, it is something that I couldn't have slept at night if I would have folded on this, because I really feel strongly that this is the right policy."

McCaskill said she plans to start focusing on boosting sexual-assault reporting and services on college campuses and wants to go back to working with Gillibrand to ensure sexual-assault reforms are implemented.

"It will be a relief to get back to Kirsten Gillibrand and I working lockstep to make sure that all these reforms are implemented in a way that protects victims and bring perpetrators to prison where they belong," she said.

Gillibrand said she is reviewing why convictions so often result in slaps on the wrist and is pressing the armed services for more data on how cases were handled.

Both Gillibrand and McCaskill said they also plan to focus efforts to address suicides and post-traumatic stress problems related to sexual assaults in the military, with an eye toward improving services and treatment offered.

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