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Gillibrand military sexual assault bill gets supermajority status

The bill now has support from most members of the Senate Armed Services Committee

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, left, and Joni Ernst attend a news conference on the bill on April 29.
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, left, and Joni Ernst attend a news conference on the bill on April 29. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Clarified, 6:02 pm | A Senate bill that would change how the military justice system handles major crimes such as rape now has at least 61 co-sponsors, the measure’s supporters confirmed Thursday.

CQ Roll Call disclosed April 30 that supporters of the bill believed they had a Senate supermajority to secure its passage. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., confirmed it in a May 6 interview with NPR and, on Thursday, added the details by posting online a list of the co-sponsors.

The list reveals major changes in senators’ positions on this question over the past seven years. In fact, a majority of the Republican leadership team in the Senate now supports the bill — a remarkable turnaround from fairly solid GOP resistance in the past.

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What’s more, the measure now enjoys, for the first time, the support of a majority of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has traditionally fought the proposal.

Gillibrand’s bill would require that independent military prosecutors, not unit commanders, decide whether prosecution is warranted for most felonies. Gillibrand, in her statement, said garnering the support of 61 senators is a pivotal milestone.

“Since I first started working to reform military justice in 2013, we have twice been blocked by the filibuster standard of 60 votes, despite having a majority of the Senate in support,” Gillibrand said. “This is a defining moment.”

Major reversals

Gillibrand’s statement reveals several names that were not on a similar list of 46 supporters that she published on her website just two weeks ago.

The new names include Republicans John Barrasso of Wyoming and Roy Blunt of Missouri, two members of the Senate GOP leadership team. Among the other GOP backers in leadership are Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has voted for Gillibrand’s similar measures in the past, and Joni Ernst of Iowa, a member of Armed Services and a sexual assault survivor who announced her support in April.

Other Republican co-sponsors whose support became public Thursday are three other Armed Services Committee members — Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota — as well as both Kansas senators, Republicans Roger Marshall and Jerry Moran.

A committee’s flip

The Armed Services Committee, which will probably vote on Gillibrand’s proposal during a markup of the fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill in July, has long been a bastion of opposition to her proposal, largely because of resistance by military brass.

Besides the new GOP co-sponsors on the committee — Hawley, Fischer and Cramer — Ernst and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama have been on board for a couple of weeks.

North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis said in April he is prepared to support Gillibrand’s legislation unless he hears something better from the Pentagon. And other GOP senators on the committee may also be persuadable, according to both their comments and the views of aides and experts.

Gillibrand still faces opposition from some GOP members of the panel, led by top Republican James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma.

Another new, key Armed Services supporter is Democrat Jacky Rosen of Nevada.

Committee members Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Angus King, I-Maine, opposed Gillibrand’s proposal seven years ago, saying then that they wanted to give the Pentagon time to solve the problem. But they now say they are out of patience and are co-sponsors of Gillibrand’s bill.

Chairman Jack Reed of Rhode Island and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III are the only two committee Democrats who have yet to say how they would vote.

Pentagon holds fire

In the House, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., has long advocated legislation similar to Gillibrand’s, although Speier’s proposal is focused only on sexual offenses. Speier chairs the Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

Speier announced the introduction of a 2021 version of her bill on Thursday and drew the support of House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash. Senate Armed Services member Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, plans to sponsor a Senate companion, aides said.

President Joe Biden, as well as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and a recent report from a Defense Department task force, disclosed by The Associated Press, all back moving decisions on prosecuting sexual crimes out of commanders’ hands.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has yet to announce the department’s formal position.

But with Congress likely poised to force the change anyway, the military’s viewpoint, while it might influence the debate, appears unlikely to alter the growing support.

The most recent Defense Department survey showed 20,500 sexual assaults on active-duty women and men in fiscal 2018. Less than half were formally reported, and only 108 people were convicted of these crimes.

This report was clarified to accurately report Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., as leaning toward supporting the Gillibrand proposal.

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