WASHINGTON – For nearly a decade, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has meticulously cobbled together a bipartisan Senate majority for law that would revise the way the military deals with sexual assault and other serious crimes, a shift many experts believe is long overdue hold.
Ms. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, has won the support of President Biden – something President Barack Obama never openly admitted – and a rare turn of many colleagues who voted against the law when it was last spoken of events in a deeply divided body.
But now she faces one final hurdle: resistance from the leaders of her Chamber’s Armed Services Committee, Senators Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, and James M. Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma. There is hardly a political sweater set that the two men, both army veterans who came to the Senate in the mid-1990s, often coordinate as one in military matters.
Mr Reed, 71, and Mr Inhofe, 86, have teamed up to oppose Mrs Gillibrand’s legislation and delay any move towards a speedy vote, a stance that many supporters of the bill say they are Protocol shows far more deference to military commanders and the committee than is warranted given decades of failure to protect victims in the armed forces. Ms. Gillibrand’s bill would cut off the military chain of command from decisions to prosecute soldiers for sexual assault and many other serious crimes, fundamentally changing the military justice system.
“This is a remarkable moment for an extremely important cause,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and longtime advocate of change, said in an interview last week. Bringing the legislation past Mr. Reed and Mr. Inhofe, he said, was “part of that mosaic.”
The landscape is emblematic of growing bipartisan dissatisfaction in Congress with military leaders on a number of fronts, while concurrent with Congress’s long-standing respect for commanders regarding politics.
The conflict played out over several days in the Senate last week when Mrs. Gillibrand – flanked by the two Conservative Republican Senators from Iowa, Charles E. Grassley and Joni Ernst, and Mr. Blumenthal – made a highly unusual procedural attempt to get one Votes by the entire Senate, bypassing the Armed Services Committee. Mrs Gillibrand and many of her supporters fear that if the bill stays on committee where it is brought into the debate on the annual defense bill, it will either never get to the vote or fall victim to the last minute, as has similar measures in the past have done.
“The committee has abandoned survivors for the past 10 years,” Ms. Gillibrand said on the floor. “And I don’t think it’s your responsibility to make that final decision.”
Mrs. Ernst agreed. “If a foreign power attacked one of our soldiers abroad, a rush of senators would come on the floor demanding action,” she said. “Now I only hear the steps of those who keep us from thinking about anything that would help prevent attacks on our soldiers by their own.”
Mr. Reed, who opposed a notable reprimand from a committee member of his own party, moved with Mr. Inhofe to prevent Senators from bringing the bill outside the committee, where it can be changed at his discretion.
“I am committed to ensuring that due consideration is given to any idea or change brought up by our committee members,” said Mr. Reed. He said that he found Mrs Gillibrand’s calculation too broad and too far-reaching.
For many advocates of the law, the reticence shown in varying degrees by Mr. Reed and Mr. Inhofe threatens the will of the Senate majority, tired of military leaders’ inaction, to reduce the number of abuses and give victims a fairer path to justice to search.
“His heart is in the right place,” said Mr. Blumenthal of Mr. Reed. But by narrowing the scope of the legislation, he said, “We are about to go back to small steps that could not address the real problem.”
Mrs. Gillibrand was more blunt. “You are both against my law and want to kill it in committee,” she said in an interview on Friday. “They have such a great respect for the chain of command that they often show it too much deference.”
If it could get into the Senate, Ms. Gillibrand’s bill would easily break the 60-vote threshold for filibusters that hinders many other laws. It has 65 other senators who have signed – including many who voted against the same bill in 2014, arguing that it would undermine commanders – and at least five others have pledged their support.
But Mr. Inhofe remains opposed to removing the military chain of command from persecuting military personnel for sexual assault.
“Those of us in the military have very strong feelings about the role of commander,” he said, referring to his previous life as a private first class. In an email he later added, “Unfortunately, this bill has many other flaws that make it difficult and time-consuming to implement, creating an unstable judicial system and even creating the potential for convictions during this transition.” could be. “
Mr Reed has said that he is now open to changes in the way sexual assault is judged – after years of resisting such moves – but does not want any other crimes included in the bill.
He prefers the proposals of a panel appointed by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, which has made this issue one of its first priorities. This commission has not yet published its final recommendations, but has signaled that independent military lawyers reporting to a dedicated victim prosecutor should take on the role commanders are currently playing in deciding whether individuals are charged with sexual assault, sexual harassment, or domestic Are charged with violence, will be tried before a court martial.
Ms Gillibrand’s action covers a wider range of serious crimes.
“I think I support efforts to eradicate sex-related crimes,” said Mr Reed in an interview last week. “I think it is important to have a very robust and energetic debate about the other provisions,” he added, “which are only general products and not related to sexual content.” (Proponents of Ms. Gillibrand’s proposal argue that anyone in the military charged with serious crimes should be brought to justice by a trained military attorney outside the immediate chain of command of the defendant or the prosecutor.)
Mr. Austin has given all service secretaries a few weeks to read through the recommendations of the commission. According to people informed of their responses but not allowed to publicly discuss them, Army and Navy leaders have refused, while some Air Force and Navy members have been more open about considering at least some versions of the proposed changes to pull.
Many senators who spoke out against Ms. Gillibrand’s bill in 2014 have since changed their minds, citing the lack of progress in combating sexual assault and harassment in the military, highlighted by a case last year in which an Army specialist was killed by another soldier at Fort Hood, Texas, police said. Her family and some investigators said she was sexually molested at the base.
In 2014, many legislators from both parties gave in to generals and admirals who opposed such changes, but most are now far less patient with their arguments. Not so, Mr. Reed.
“We are awaiting some input from the Department of Defense to ensure that we are doing everything in our power to improve prevention and create a leadership climate that supports all of these efforts,” he said.
Nobody really believed that Ms. Gillibrand and her allies would get a quick vote on their bill. Their movements on the floor should clearly draw attention to the objections of Mr. Reed and Mr. Inhofe.
However, while Mr Reed advocates a debate on the bill as part of the annual Defense Policy Bill, where even many of its proponents agree that it would most naturally fit, Ms. Gillibrand and Ms. Ernst have reason to be suspicious of the process. You have looked for another way, for example, as an independent measure without a vote in committee, which occasionally happens, to sit in the Senate.
A much smaller measure – a pilot program for the service academies that would have mirrored Ms. Gillibrand’s efforts – was removed from the bill last year before a final vote. In 2019, another measure that would have protected sexual assault survivors from being charged with so-called collateral offenses was gutted in the same way.
Any move to negotiate the bill without Mr Reed’s blessing could be a headache for Senator Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat and majority leader. He would then have to decide whether to bring a leader of his own party to his knees or to oppose the junior senator of his own state whose bill he supports.
In the meantime, Mr Reed and Mr Inhofe have stressed the breadth of the bill in hopes of drawing attention to this potential problem.
“I want to talk to Kirsten about that,” said Senator Angus King, regardless of Maine, who once opposed the law but has since supported it. “And see why she needs such a large margin.”
Mr. Grassley, who himself chaired the committee many times during his decades in the Senate, is among those who oppose Mr. Reed and Mr. Inhofe.
“We’ve waited almost a decade,” he said. “You don’t have to wait any longer. I urge my colleagues to unanimously support the protection of our men and women in the military and to have this law passed. “