Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is still confident that she can round up 60 votes to pass her military sexual assault proposal despite continued opposition from some members of her own party.
Appearing on ABC's This Week, Gillibrand said she would not try to get a vote on a modified proposal that she had floated last week as a possible route to get more support. "We're going to stick to the original plan because it's a better bill," she said.
Gillibrand's original bill removes decision-making authority for crimes equivalent to a felony from the military chain of command and gives it to a prosecutor.
Last week it was reported that Gillibrand might offer a proposal that would have made that change only to sexual assault cases. Victim advocates and military law experts raised objections to the modifications and worried that creating a separate legal system for these cases could further isolate victims of assault.
The senate is expected to begin debate on the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act starting this week, although it is not clear when there will be a vote on Gillibrand's bill, which she will offer as an amendment. The NDAA currently includes reforms championed by fellow Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri. McCaskill's proposal would leave decision-making authority about prosecution with commanders, as well as a host of other changes designed to increase data collection, reporting, and reduce retaliation against men and women who report assaults.
Gillibrand has led the push to reduce the incidence of sexual assault in the ranks for years, but the issue took on new urgency after the Pentagon released its annual report on sexual assault that estimated some 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact had taken place in 2012 but that only just over 3,000 were reported and only a few hundred actually prosecuted. A survey of survivors also found that 62% of those who reported assaults also experienced some form of retailation from fellow soldiers and commanders.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon released data from the first three quarters of this fiscal year that found reports of military sexual assault jumped 46% from the same period last year. "This is an epidemic that has grown to such proportions," Gillibrand said Sunday, pointing out that top officials have been promising change for decades with little to no effect. "And the military has said for 25 years, since Dick Cheney was the secretary of defense, that there is zero tolerance for sexual assault in the military. And last year alone, we had 3,000 reported cases of sexual assault."
Gillibrand currently has 47 senators, from both parties and across the ideological spectrum, who have pledged to vote for the bill. While still shy of the 60 needed to pass the amendment, Gillibrand insisted she can close the gap. "I think we'll get them," she said. It could set her efforts back if the Senate puts off dealing with her bill until after its Thanksgiving break, but delays so far have only allowed Gillibrand to garner more support, most recently from a Department of Defense commission on women's issues that backed her plan.
"We want to make sure that the men and women who serve our military have a justice system deserving of their sacrifices," Gillibrand said Sunday. "They need justice. And that's what we're trying to do."