Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is flanked by Sarah Plummer, left, a Marine Corps veteran and victim of sexual assault, and Kate Weber, right, a veteran who was sexually assaulted during her service in the Army, during a Nov. 19 news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
WASHINGTON — Fifty members of the Senate are now publicly backing a proposal by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to let military prosecutors rather than commanders decide whether to prosecute sexual assaults in the military.
Nevada’s senators announced their support on Tuesday, reducing the number of publicly undecided members of the Senate to about 25. The separate announcements by Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid came as Gillibrand, a Democrat, continued meeting privately with undecided senators.
Heller said he decided there needed to be three standards — that victims “must feel confident” they can report a crime, that they are “protected from sexual harassment” and victims “should feel confident that justice will be served.”
“That’s what brings me to the table today,” said Heller, who joined Gillibrand at a news conference. “This amendment does do that. What it does is tell the commander in the field, you can go back to doing your job and get the troops ready.”
Gillibrand plans to offer her proposal as an amendment to a defense authorization measure Senate is debating this week.
Several other senators have expressed support privately, Gillibrand said. But she remains shy of the 60-vote supermajority required for amendments to the defense authorization bill.
Opponents of her proposal are led by most members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., who voted down the proposal in committee while approving a package of other reforms.
Other senators who oppose it include Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas.
Manchin said he decided it would be “horrific” to deprive the chain of command of decision-making authority in prosecuting criminal cases.
Roberts, a Marine Corps veteran, said the commandant of the Marine Corps told him Gillibrand’s proposal “would be very counterproductive to the command structure. And we have taken steps in the Marine Corps to the best we possibly can to be more accountable.”
Most of the undecided senators are Republican. They include Marco Rubio of Florida, who said he has met with Gillibrand “on a couple of occasions and talked to her on the phone a few times as well.”
“I’m still reviewing all the different options,” Rubio said.
Another undecided senator is Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming, who was scheduled to meet with Gillibrand late Tuesday.
“I’ve not made any announcements of the way I’m going to vote,” Barrasso said. He noted that the reforms in the underlying bill “are a huge step forward.”
“We need to find a way to eliminate sexual assault in the military,” Barrasso said. “It’s terrible. I visited with a young woman from Wyoming who had been patient of mine when I was an orthopedic surgeon who had been the subject of a sexual assault in the military. It’s obviously very personal to me because this is somebody I have taken care of as a patient. I am very concerned there is justice.”