WASHINGTON -- Concern over the increased number of sexual assaults in the military spilled onto the Senate floor Wednesday in an hours-long debate that has divided Congress over the best way to handle the problem.
The Defense Department estimated a 35% increase in unreported sexual assaults in recent years, a report that came within days of the arrest of the Air Force’s chief of sexual assault prevention this spring on suspicion of groping a woman outside a bar near the Pentagon. About 26,000 members of the military are believed to have been sexually assaulted in 2012, the department said.
At issue is whether to reduce the role of the commanding officers in deciding whether to pursue charges in a reported attack. Service members have testified on Capitol Hill that the crimes are going unreported by military personnel who are fearful of retaliation from their commanders. Cases that are investigated are often dismissed by commanders.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday that of the 3,370 cases of reported sexual assault, 300 went to trial. She has proposed an amendment to the annual must-pass defense authorization bill that would shift the decision-making process for prosecutions to the military’s legal arm.
“Instead of that commander making that decision, it will be a trained military prosecutor,” Gillibrand said in the opening of a six-hour floor debate. “There are too many command climates that are toxic, that do not ensure good order and discipline, that do not protect against rape and sexual assault.”
Support for Gillibrand’s campaign has been building for months among senators and service-member organizations. This week, her amendment won the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
But it remains unclear whether the Gillibrand proposal will come to a vote, or reach the 60-vote threshold needed to break a filibuster in the Senate.
Not all Democrats back the New York senator’s approach, with some joining Republicans in raising objections. The defense bill already included assault provisions that hew to the approach taken by the House, which retained the role of the commanders but limited their ability to dismiss cases.
That approach could be bolstered by an amendment from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) that would allow victims to chose between civilian or military investigations.
Senators have warned that removing the chain-of-command from the decision-making process would erode the ability of commanders to oversee their personnel.
“You’re doing the worst possible thing to solve the problem,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a former military prosecutor, during Wednesday’s debate. “You throw the military justice system into chaos; you take the commanders’ responsibility away.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has yet to weigh in. “I'm among those still listening to the arguments that have been made,” McConnell said this week. “I think everyone knows this is a very serious problem. The question is, what's the best way to address it?”
With 350 amendments offered on the defense bill, the Senate leaders may be unable to reach an agreement on how to dispatch with all the requests. Even in eras of fierce partisanship, the Defense bill, which sets pay for the troops and other policy changes, has passed Congress for almost 50 years.
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