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Democrats Split on Sex Assault in the Military

Democrats on the Armed Services panel battled each other Wednesday over how to deal with the growing incidence of sexual assault in the military, a rift that pitted the party’s own campaign committees against those who want to preserve the military’s traditional chain of command.

Despite some support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York watched as fellow Democrats stripped the annual defense authorization bill of her legislation to remove sexual-assault reporting from the military chain of command. Instead, in a rare open session, Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., prevailed 17-9 on an amendment authorizing more modest changes to address the epidemic of sexual misconduct in the military.

Gillibrand’s bill, which never had the support of Levin or uniformed military leadership, brought together a strange coalition of senators, from Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut on the left to Ted Cruz of Texas on the right. Cruz also suggested that the Senate should revisit Gillibrand’s solution if Levin’s proposal did not stem the rise of incidents. Six senators who caucus with Democrats voted with Levin, including Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. The panel’s two GOP women, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska, also voted for Levin’s offering.

“I am deeply disappointed the voices of the victims of sexual assault have been drowned out by the military leaders who have failed to combat this crisis. While, in my view, we did not take all the steps required to solve the problem, there is no doubt we have taken several significant steps forward with the current version of the bill,” Gillibrand said in a statement following the vote. “Our advocacy on this issue to remove the sole decision making of the chain of command in serious crimes has only just begun.”

The division exposed on the panel soon could be Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s problem, as Gillibrand has vowed to continue the fight for her legislation, even given the opposition of fellow Democrats.

In addition to Gillibrand, Blumenthal and Cruz, Sens. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Mark Udall, D-Colo., and David Vitter, R-La., voted against Levin’s amendment, which would keep sexual-assault cases within the chain of command. Levin’s proposal would require the next-highest officer in the chain of command to review any decision not to prosecute a sexual assault. Levin’s measure also would make any retaliatory action against a victim of sexual assault a crime.

As Gillibrand promised another vote, some Democratic senators campaigned on the issue, launching an online petition co-sponsored by both the House and Senate Democratic campaign arms. Eight senators launched a petition to “Stand with the victims of sexual assault” in conjunction with the DSCC and DCCC. The petition specifically endorsed Gillibrand’s bill.

“Together we must ensure that decisions about whether to prosecute sexual assault cases are made by independent prosecutors, not senior commanders,” the online petition reads. “Together, we must ensure that commanders can no longer unilaterally overturn a verdict rendered in military court. Together we can — and we will — do right by our service men and women.”

The Department of Defense estimated that 26,000 incidents of sexual misconduct occurred in 2012. And in recent months, news stories have revealed that some officers in charge of sexual-assault prevention task forces were themselves accused or charged with sexual assault.

The battle over Gillibrand’s bill is not necessarily a family fight Democrats want playing out, especially on a problem that has so deeply embarrassed the military. Even longtime hawk Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently said he could not make “unqualified” recommendations to women seeking spots in the armed services. McCain voted for Levin’s bill.

Still, a Reid spokesman said Gillibrand would be given an opportunity to push her proposal when the defense authorization bill comes to the floor. “Sen. Reid believes very strongly that this is a crisis and it must be addressed aggressively and promptly,” the spokesman said.

Both supporters and detractors of Gillibrand’s measure commended the New York Democrat for pushing the issue into the forefront. As CQ Roll Call reported in March, the Senate until recently had been silent on the issue.

“Her proposal has helped to move this debate,” Blumenthal said of Gillibrand. He added: “From the standpoint of the victim — how the system looks for him or her and my fear is that for the victim, it will look like we’re just tinkering with the system.”

Not all senators felt that way, however. Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina expressed concern that the increased attention on the issue could create a culture of presumed guilt in the military for individuals accused of sexual misconduct.

“What I fear is that we’re creating an environment where it’s going to be impossible to be found innocent,” Graham said, after the panel voted to strike down Gillibrand’s bill.

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