New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand had big shoes to fill entering the Senate in January 2009: A month prior, newly-elected President Barack Obama had selected the current New York senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to join his team of rivals as Secretary of State.
In the intervening six years, Gillibrand has become a Democratic powerhouse in her own right, fighting for gun control, universal health care, and Hurricane Sandy recovery funding. But the issue that put her on the map nationally last year is her persistent call for reform of the Uniform Code of Military Justice to end sexual assault in the military’s ranks.
“I kind of feel like [the issue] chose me,” Gillibrand told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes in an interview that aired Thursday. She credited the documentary The Invisible War with spurring her to action.
“I was so enraged when I listened to these stories of young men and women getting brutally raped, and saying I could survive the rape but what I couldn’t survive is my family, my military, the military I serve turning their back on me,” Gillibrand told Hayes. “I couldn’t believe that these men and women, who will literally die for our country, were being treated so poorly by the chain of command that was supposed to be there to protect them and to make sure they were trained and well looked after.”
Gillibrand has brought her experience as a mother into more than a few of her legislative debates. When it comes to addressing military sexual assault, her chief legislative rival is Sen. Claire McCaskill, who often draws on her experience as a former prosecutor.
Unlike Gillibrand, McCaskill –along with the top military brass—favors keeping jurisdiction of sexual assault cases within the military’s ranks. The National Defense Authorization Act passed in Dec. 2013 includes a provision that military commanders will no longer be able to overturn jury convictions in sexual assault cases – but the NDAA falls short of Gillibrand’s proposed military prosecutors outside the chain of command.
Gillibrand calls the military “a closed system where your boss, the commander, holds all the cards.”
“They are the only decision-maker on whether or not you go to trial,” Gillibrand told Hayes. “And so that boss, if they’re not a lawyer, if they don’t know what sexual assault and rape is, if they think it’s a crime of dating or a hook-up culture, they’re not going to get it right. And to expect them to get it right is the mistake.”
Gillibrand gets her second chance at reforming the law next month, when the Senate is expected to return to the issue.
The New York Daily News reported that McCaskill has been “distributing one-page summaries to undecided Senators, urging them to oppose Gillibrand’s bill and back an alternative measure McCaskill and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) have offered.”
Earlier this month, McCaskill slammed Gillibrand’s opposition, saying, “This has unfortunately been characterized as victims versus the Pentagon… and that does victims a real disservice.”
Congressman Michael Turner, R-Ohio, co-chairs the sexual assault prevention caucus. He told the Washington Times this week that Gillibrand “seriously misrepresents the circumstances of the Defense Department, because she ignores the legislation that was passed.”
“I think at this point it’s certainly not an issue of sexual assault, it’s just an issue of the senator wanting to promote her solution that has already lost,” Turner told the Times. “I think she’s getting a whole lot of attention for a debate that’s over.”
“Well he’s wrong,” Gillibrand responded to Hayes. “I think the reforms in the underlying bill are good… [but] none of them do anything for the nine out of ten cases that aren’t being reported because the victims have told us over and over and over again… that they aren’t reporting because they don’t believe the chain of command will do anything. They don’t report because they fear retaliation. They feel that they will be blamed for reporting a crime.”
“And so if you listen to the victims, if you listen to those survivors, the one thing they asked for, is they don’t want this decision being made within the chain of command,” Gillibrand said.
Gillibrand said her proposal has the support of a majority of the Senate – but that the 54 senators in favor will need six more to join their ranks in order to defeat a filibuster.
“If our opponents want to filibuster a bill, if they want to filibuster justice for these men and women who will give their lives for our country, that is their right to do. And we will meet that 60 vote threshold,” Gillibrand said, adding that the opposition already indicated they are going to require 60 votes for passage. “If they choose to use procedural blocks like a filibuster to make it more difficult to do this reform, that’s their choice.”
For more from Sen. Gillibrand, including discussion on the farm bill and Iran sanctions, check out Chris Hayes’ extended interview