WASHINGTON — Timing can be everything in politics, as a congressional showdown over military sexual assault might soon demonstrate.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and her allies struck when the iron was hot earlier this year, proposing revisions to the military’s sexual-assault laws in the wake of high-profile cases.
But every iron cools eventually, and this, too, might help McCaskill as she fends off competing proposals that some fear go too far.
Within days, the Senate might vote on a huge defense bill whose military sexual-assault provisions pit McCaskill against a fellow Democrat. In the scoreboard language of Capitol Hill, McCaskill seems likely to win. At the same time, while she says she’s optimistic, she isn’t taking anything for granted.
“The optics of this are tough,” McCaskill acknowledged in an interview Friday. “I had one Republican tell me he didn’t want to be seen as anti-woman.”
McCaskill supports a batch of ideas designed to reduce sexual assault in the military. But she opposes an amendment by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would remove sexual assault cases from the usual military chain of command. Fierce one-on-one lobbying from both sides so far appears to leave McCaskill with the upper hand and Gillibrand short of the 60 votes she’ll need to get the amendment added to the bill.
“It feels like this has been converted, unfortunately, into a ‘who’s side are you on, victims or commanders?’ issue,” McCaskill said. But “when I go through (the details) with other members, I think we’ve slowed down the political narrative.”
The defense authorization bill on which Senate voting may begin as early as Tuesday is always a big deal, because of the money it provides. The fiscal 2014 bill, crafted by the Senate Armed Services Committee, boasts a $625 billion price tag.
This year, a focus on military sexual assault has temporarily overshadowed all else. Fully 46 pages of the 616-page bill are devoted to sexual assault issues, with proposed changes ranging from limiting a commander’s ability to modify court-martial findings to requiring that accusers be assigned special counsel. These changes draw unified support.
“Too often, these brave men and women find themselves in the fight of their lives not off on some faraway battlefield but right here on our own soil, within their own ranks and commanding officers, as victims of horrific acts of sexual violence,” Gillibrand declared earlier this month.
The myriad provisions also exemplify the momentum that built quickly for the 113th Congress to act. For Gillibrand, it also may have peaked too early.
On Feb. 26, Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overturned the aggravated sexual-assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a fellow fighter pilot who was incarcerated in a South Carolina brig. Calls for change started immediately, with McCaskill among the first to champion changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice in early March .
Other incidents amplified the message that something was amiss with military justice. A Pentagon investigation last November found serious leadership problems at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, which had been racked by sex scandals involving trainers and recruits. In early May, the Air Force lieutenant colonel who led the service’s sexual assault response program was accused of groping a woman outside a bar.
Lawmakers and the news media alike rushed to the sound of gunfire, with numerous stories citing a military sexual assault “epidemic.” Simplified, vivid rhetoric further rallied the political troops.
“The fact is, there are 26,000 sexual assaults a year,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California who supports Gillibrand, said earlier this month.
The oft-cited 26,000 figure is an extrapolation from a survey last year of about 1.5 percent of active-duty members of the military, who were asked whether they’d experienced “unwanted sexual contact” that might range from “unwanted sexual touching” to intercourse.
The political momentum that had led Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno in June to call stopping sexual assault in the military his “number one priority” began dissipating. A potential U.S. missile strike on Syria in September refocused attention on war-fighting priorities. The federal government shutdown and debt-ceiling showdown captured the crisis spotlight.
Symbolizing the shift, a civilian jury on Wednesday acquitted the Air Force lieutenant colonel who’d been accused of groping.
“The white-hot attention of the media has become dominated by other issues,” Glen Caplin, a spokesman for Gillibrand, acknowledged Friday, “but it has not disappeared, and there’s still quite a bit of energy at the grass-roots level.”
As the chairman of the Personnel Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gillibrand helped write the bill’s sexual assault provisions. She and McCaskill agree on many of them, but Gillibrand’s signature proposal to remove sexual assault cases from the usual chain of command was stripped out on a 17-9 vote.
Still in her first term, the 46-year-old Gillibrand has been showing a pro’s persistence ever since the June committee vote as she prepares for full Senate action. Publicly, she claims the support of 46 senators, including such seemingly unlikely allies as conservative Republican Ted Cruz of Texas.
“The trust that any justice will be served has irreparably broken under the current system, where commanders hold all the cards whether a case moves forward to prosecution,” Gillibrand told a defense advisory panel in September.
The nine-member advisory group is itself emblematic of how Congress can shift gears from frantic to placid and back again. Lawmakers established the panel in a defense bill that passed late last year, to solicit expert recommendations on how military justice might be overhauled. Congress originally gave the panel 18 months, time for deep study.
Congress, though, has now decided it can’t wait for the recommendations, expected to come next summer.
Gillibrand continues to contemplate potential revisions in her chain-of-command amendment, in an effort to attract sufficient votes. McCaskill, meanwhile, is going after undecided colleagues in her own way.
“She’s making deals, and I’m sticking with policy,” McCaskill said, “and I hope policy prevails.”
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