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Lawmakers still debating sexual assault case reforms

Mar. 19, 2014 - 11:46AM   |  
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The legislative fight over military sexual assaults just won’t end.

The Senate finished its work on new military sexual assault reforms two weeks ago, but since then the senators at the heart of the debate have kept pushing to prove they were right. It’s an extension of a yearlong fight both in public and behind Congress’ closed doors, pitting two prominent Democrats against each other.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., appeared to win the debate when she secured a unanimous vote backing her reform legislation, a series of mandates to how victims are represented in the military legal process, how offenders are punished and how command decisions are reviewed to ensure fairness.

But her press conference with reporters just minutes after the victory sounded more like a concession speech, emphasizing why her plan was more balanced than a military justice overhaul backed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

In the days since, McCaskill’s office has continued to send out emails touting the plan, and she authored a piece in Time magazine stoking the fight.

In it, she laments her “game-changing reforms” have been overshadowed by the already defeated Gillibrand plan, which she says “would have backfired, resulting in higher rates of retaliation against victims and fewer prosecutions of predators.”

On the other side, Gillibrand has vowed that her proposal’s defeat — she collected 55 votes for the plan but fell five short of clearing a procedural hurdle — was only temporary.

She’s looking at upcoming annual defense legislation as a vehicle to revive her controversial proposal, which would remove sexual assault prosecutions from the normal chain of command and create an independent prosecutors branch.

“We will not walk away,” she wrote in a New York Daily News editorial. “We will work harder than ever in the coming year to strengthen our military by taking sexual assaults and other major crimes out of the chain of command, so that no victim is compelled to turn to his or her boss to ask for justice.”

Supporters from both sides have seized upon the abrupt turns in the trial of Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, accused of forcing a female captain to perform oral sex against her will at least twice during their three-year affair. Prosecutors reached a plea deal with Sinclair over the weekend, forcing him to retire but allowing him to avoid the most serious charges.

McCaskill’s camp has argued that the Sinclair case would have been swept under the rug if not for commanders pressing to keep prosecutors on the case.

But Gillibrand’s supporters maintain Sinclair’s trial is the perfect example of why commanders need to be removed from the process, in this case because they politicized the prosecution to appear tough on sexual assault.

The dueling lobbying comes despite a clear path ahead for reforms, at least politically. House leadership showed little support for the Gillibrand proposal, citing military opposition. However, they have offered support for McCaskill’s initiatives, and are discussing ways to include those changes in annual defense policy legislation.

But Greg Jacob, policy director for Service Women’s Action Network, said much of the effort now is designed to keep the issue at the forefront of lawmakers’ minds.

He said numerous senators who voted against the Gillibrand plan — which SWAN supports — said they wanted to wait and see if the McCaskill reforms eased problems with the system. If improvements don’t come quickly, they may be willing to back a complete overhaul later this year.

Military officials have pushed against Gillibrand’s plan for months, arguing that it would upset and unnecessarily complicate the military justice system. Their behind-the-scenes lobbying helped sway several Senate votes, but Jacob said they’ll now also have to prove they’re taking the issue seriously moving ahead.

“There’s not a lot of high-fiving at the Pentagon right now,” he said. “They know they have a lot of work to do.”

And they know that lawmakers are still watching closely.

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