Military Sexual-Assault Bills Touch Raw Political Nerve for Democrats

McCaskill, right, with Ayotte and Fischer, preparing for her Thursday news conference on sexual assault in the military. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
McCaskill, right, with Ayotte and Fischer, preparing for her Thursday news conference on sexual assault in the military. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 15, 2013 at 3:23pm

Democrats seem to agree on the need to address the rising number of sexual assaults in the military, but the intraparty battle over the issue has gotten deeply personal and could end up politically damaging to those who have been tagged as “anti-victim.”

Democratic leaders are dreading having what is likely to be an emotionally charged fight play out on the Senate floor when the chamber takes up the Defense authorization bill in the next few weeks.

“I would be less than candid if I didn’t say this has been — for somebody who has fought and has a long history of victim advocacy, from my days as a state legislator to my days as a prosecutor to establishing laws and programs and fighting for victims all my life — that it’s been very difficult to be characterized as anti-victim,” Sen. Claire McCaskill told CQ Roll Call.

The Missouri Democrat has been one of the lead supporters of keeping sexual-assault cases within the military’s chain of command while making other key changes aimed at addressing the issue. On the other side, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has been aggressively pushing to take commanders out of the mix when it comes to sexual-assault allegations.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been coy about his plans to proceed on competing proposals to curb what has become a crisis in the armed forces. While most of his caucus members support Gillibrand’s framework, at least a dozen Democrats likely will vote for the Senate Armed Services Committee markup language being championed by McCaskill.

No. 3 Democrat Charles E. Schumer of New York supports Gillibrand’s bill, while the other members of the leadership team, including Reid, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Patty Murray of Washington are undecided. Both proposals have support from Republicans.

Reid has met with both senators independently to try to map out the best way forward, but sources say leaders are concerned that Gillibrand and her supporters’ passionate rhetoric will make fellow Democrats look anti-victim.

The worry is not unfounded, given how personal the fight has been for months and how much the rhetoric has intensified in the past few weeks.

Gillibrand and her allies’ personal political campaign committees, along with the liberal blog Daily Kos, own the Internet domain, and the New York Democrat has sent political emails to collect names on petitions to support her bill, information that later can be used for fundraising or future campaigns.

Editorials have run across the country and in states where senators have not yet committed to a framework. Protect Our Defenders, an outside group that supports the Gillibrand bill, took out a full-page ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch with the headline “Sen. McCaskill, ‘Please reconsider and stand with me, a military rape survivor.'”

Sources say Gillibrand has assured fellow Democrats that she and her staff had nothing to do with the ad, and an ad like that never was run again either against McCaskill or other Democrats who do not support the Gillibrand bill.

McCaskill until recently had not been as out-in-front as Gillibrand on the issue in terms of television appearances, news articles or political activity. But as the Senate has moved closer to debate on the defense authorization bill — which at this point likely will come after Thanksgiving — McCaskill has become more vocal. For example, she held a news conference Thursday with Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a former state attorney general, and Deb Fischer, R-Neb., an Armed Services Committee member, to introduce another package they believe will get passed into law.

It’s clear from news conferences and off-the-cuff comments in Capitol corridors that McCaskill is miffed by the tone of the debate so far. Both she and Gillibrand are set in the belief of the rightness of their approaches and are determined to prevail — and both are getting worse at hiding their beef with each other.

“This issue is my issue, too. I believe the reforms that we’re going to enact into law will make this the most victim-friendly system in the world,” McCaskill said when asked whether the politicization of the debate bothered her. “The practical considerations of doing these cases, many of my colleagues have not lived that. … I will fight until my last breath to allow anyone to take this issue of victim advocacy away from my portfolio.”

When asked whether she had concerns about the tone of a potential floor debate on this issue, Gillibrand said she did not. She said senators owed it to victims to have as full a debate as possible.

“No. When an issue of this importance — when there are 26,000 rapes, sexual assaults or unwanted sexual contacts in the military alone last year, and only 3,000 victims feel comfortable enough to report those crimes … there’s a real failure in the command climate to maintain good order and discipline,” she said. “This is the kind of issue that should be debated. It should be debated long and hard.”

There seems to be little hope that the differences between Democrats get ironed out behind closed doors before full floor debate. A private, informal session was held Tuesday night among Senate Armed Services Committee members, but no real progress was made.

“I think we’re dug in. I think they’re pretty well dug in,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Navy veteran who supports McCaskill’s approach. “I don’t think there’s been any progress in negotiations on the sexual assault issue between Sen. McCaskill and Sen. Gillibrand, so we’ll vote it on the floor.”

That vote is likely to result in a win for McCaskill, given the Republican backing she has. And while Gillibrand acknowledged earlier this year that the McCaskill approach was a step in the right direction to protecting victims of sexual assault, the fight is sure to leave the party bruised.