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Female Senators Debate Military Sexual Assault in Private Meeting

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., called a closed-door meeting of female senators Tuesday to discuss provisions included in the defense authorization bill markup to mitigate sexual assault in the military as well as other measures that still could be considered in the full Senate debate later this year.

The bipartisan meeting was informational and designed to ensure all female members were briefed with the progress made in order to boost their power in a debate that has grown in recent weeks, according to several senators who attended.

As we’ve previously reported, women on the Armed Services Committee have helped guide the discussion on the issue of sexual misconduct in the military, though they are divided on the question of whether the prosecution of sexual misconduct should be removed from the chain of command.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has introduced a bill that would remove the reporting structure of sexual assault from the chain of command, but it was not reported out of committee. That provision was discussed at the meeting, according to senators present, but it’s unclear whether there was consensus on how to proceed with the issue and many members approached for this story were hesitant to detail private conversations.

But female senators who attended the meeting say they are largely optimistic about the number of changes that have been adopted already.

“I think people feel good about the legislation that’s been proposed,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the panel. “People thought [the National Defense Authorization Act] was very good progress on the issue, but we need to monitor it carefully and we also need to continue to look at other areas where additional legislation might be appropriate, for example, on the issue of retaliation, whether there are other ways to address that legislatively.”

Shaheen noted that there have been other issues on which female lawmakers from both parties have banded together successfully, citing the ultimate passage of the Violence Against Women Act after months of delay as an example.

“One of the things that we had strong agreement on is that there’s been huge progress on this issue, special victims council, all the things in the legislation, the differences — there’s more that we agree on than disagree on, and so that’s a very positive step forward,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.

In a rare open hearing earlier this month, Ayotte was one of three female senators to vote for the chairman’s markup of amendments to the NDAA pertaining to the sexual assault issue, along with Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Republican Deb Fischer of Nebraska. She said she had to leave Tuesday’s meeting early and so could not comment on whether consensus was found on the chain-of-command legislation. The vote also split Democrats, some of whom voted for Gillibrand’s measure instead.

“This was just a discussion to go over the truly extraordinary changes that have been included in the defense authorization bill. It includes proposals that many of us have been involved in drafting as part of a wide variety of views and bills,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “I’m really excited about the fact that we’re going to do something significant in this area. It was just an opportunity to bring up to date some of the newer members who have been less involved or aren’t on the committees.”

One such member who is not on the Armed Services panel is Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who said the meeting was “worthwhile.”

“It was a good opportunity for discussion about all the provisions that had been incorporated into the measure that moved out of the Armed Services Committee, also an opportunity to discuss some of the issues that remain,” she said. “I thought it was a great opportunity for us as the women of the Senate to be coming together to more fully understand [the issue.] I’m not on that committee. I just read the press reports about what had happened, so to be able to get that background was very, very helpful. It was good. It was worthwhile.”

UPDATE, 3:47 p.m.: Gillibrand spokeswoman Bethany Lesser e-mailed the following statement: “We have a growing and bipartisan coalition of 33 Senators who are supporting our bill and want to see the fundamental change towards an independent military justice system the victims tell us is required to solve this crisis. The Senator will continue to make the case to her colleagues and we look forward to this debate on the full Senate floor.”

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