WASHINGTON – For nearly a decade, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has meticulously combined a bipartisan Senate majority to pass legislation that would review the way the military handles sexual assault and other serious crimes, a change many experts say had expected.
Ms. Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, has garnered the support of President Biden (something President Barack Obama never openly gave) and numerous colleagues who voted against the bill the last time presented to the word, a rare event in a deeply divided context. cos.
But now he faces a final hurdle: opposition from the leaders of his chamber’s Armed Services Committee, Senators Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, and James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican. Barely a set of political sweater, the two men, both Army veterans who came to the Senate in the mid-1990s, however often coordinate as one in military matters.
Reed, 71, and Inhofe, 86, have teamed up to backtrack on Ms. Gillibrand’s legislation and delay any move toward a quick vote, a stance many of the bill’s sponsors say shows a lot. more deference to military commanders and committee. protocols of what is justified given the decades of failure in the protection of victims in the armed forces. Ms. Gillibrand’s bill would remove the military chain of command from decisions about service members’ trials for sexual assault, as well as many other serious crimes, which would mean a maritime change for the military justice system.
“This is a remarkable time for an extraordinarily important cause,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and longtime supporter of the change, said in an interview last week. According to him, overcoming the legislation between Mr Reed and Mr Inhofe was “part of this mosaic”.
The landscape is emblematic of a growing bipartisan discontent in Congress with military leaders on several fronts, and in parallel, with a former congressional deference to political leaders.
The conflict unfolded for several days last week on the Senate floor when Ms. Gillibrand – flanked by two conservative Republican senators from Iowa, Charles E. Grassley and Joni Ernst and Mr. Blumenthal – made a very unusual procedural attempt to get it. bill a vote for the full Senate, without ignoring the Armed Services Committee. Ms. Gillibrand and many of her supporters fear that by keeping the bill on the committee, where it will be included in the debate on the annual defense bill, it will never end up getting a vote or undergoing a last-minute split. . , as they have had similar measures in the past.
“The committee has failed the survivors in the last ten years,” Ms. Gillibrand said in the speech. “And I don’t think it’s up to them to make that final decision.”
Mrs. Ernst agreed. “If a foreign power attacked any of our military and women from abroad, there would be a rush of senators who would come to the flat and demand action,” she said. “Now I only hear the footsteps of those who come to prevent us from considering something that would help prevent attacks on our soldiers and women by one of their own.”
Mr. Reed, shattering a notable rebuke from a committee member of his own party, went with Mr. Inhofe to prevent senators from trying to advance the bill outside the committee, where it can be modified to his liking.
“I am committed to ensuring that every idea and amendment tabled by members of our committee is given due consideration,” Reed said. He has said he finds Mrs Gillibrand’s bill too broad and excessive.
For many sponsors of the legislation, the reluctance shown to it to varying degrees by Mr. Reed and Mr. Inhofe threatens the will of the Senate majority, which has grown tired of the inaction of military leaders to reduce the number. of assaults and provide victims with a fairer way to seek justice.
“His heart is in the right place,” Blumenthal said of Mr. Reed. But, reducing the scope of the legislation, he said: “We will return immediately to the steps of the baby who could not address the real problem.”
Mrs. Gillibrand was more forceful. “They are both against my bill and would like to kill it on the committee,” he said in an interview on Friday. “They have such a deep respect for the chain of command that they are often too respectful of it.”
If she could get to the Senate floor, Mrs. Gillibrand’s bill would easily eliminate the 60-vote threshold that hinders many other laws. It has 65 more senators who have signed it, including many who voted against the same bill in 2014, arguing it would harm commanders, and at least five more have pledged their support.
But Inhofe remains opposed to removing the army’s chain of command from persecuting members of the service for sexual assault.
“Those of us who militate have very strong feelings about the role of the commander,” he said, referring to his past life as a private first class. In an email later, he added: “Unfortunately, this bill frankly has many other shortcomings that will make implementation difficult and time consuming, which will create an unstable justice system, even creating the potential that the convictions made during this transition could be overturned. “
Reed has said he is now open to changes in the way sexual assaults are awarded, after years of resisting the move, but that he does not want other crimes included in the bill.
He prefers the suggestions of a group appointed by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, who made addressing this issue one of his top priorities. This commission has not yet published its final recommendations, but has noted that independent military lawyers appearing before a special prosecutor for victims should take on the role that commanders currently have in deciding whether will prosecute those accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment or domestic violence. .
Mrs Gillibrand’s measure covers a wider range of serious offenses.
“I think I support efforts to move sex-related crimes,” Reed said in an interview last week. “I think it’s important to have a very solid and vigorous debate on the other provisions,” he added, “which are only general products and are not related to sexual content.” (Proponents of Ms. Gillibrand’s proposal argue that any military person charged with serious crimes should be tried by a military prosecutor trained outside the immediate chain of command of the defendant or prosecutor).
Austin has given all service secretaries a few weeks to read the commission’s recommendations. According to people who received information about their responses but were not allowed to discuss them publicly, army and navy leaders have refused, while some Air Force and Navy military personnel have refused. they have been more open to considering at least some version of the proposed changes.
Many senators who opposed Ms. Gillibrand’s bill in 2014 have changed their minds since then, citing the lack of progress in the fight against sexual assault and harassment in the military, highlighted by a case last year in which another soldier killed an army specialist at Fort Hood in Texas, according to law enforcement officials. Her family and some investigators said she had been sexually harassed at the base.
In 2014, many lawmakers on both sides yielded to generals and admirals who opposed such changes, but most are now much less patient with their arguments. Not so, Mr. Reed.
“We are awaiting some input from the Department of Defense to make sure we do our best to improve prevention and provide a climate of command that supports all of these efforts,” he said.
No one believed that Mrs. Gillibrand and her allies could get their bill passed quickly. His ground movements were intended to draw attention to the objections of Mr. Reed and Mr. Inhofe.
However, while Reed favors debating legislation as part of the annual defense policy bill, where even many of his supporters agree it would fit naturally, Ms. Gillibrand and Ms. Ernst are right to distrust the process. They have looked for another way, such as putting it on the Senate floor as an independent measure without a committee vote, which happens from time to time.
A much smaller measure – a pilot program for service academies that would have reflected Ms. Gillibrand’s efforts – was withdrawn from the bill last year before a final vote. In 2019, another measure that would have protected survivors of sexual assault from being charged with alleged collateral crimes was similarly eliminated.
Any move to push the bill forward without Mr. Reed’s blessing could create a headache for Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and majority leader. He would then have to choose between shooting a president of his own party and challenging the minor senator of his own state, whose bill he supports.
Meanwhile, Mr Reed and Mr Inhofe have been emphasizing the breadth of the bill, hoping to draw attention to this potential problem.
“That’s what I want to talk to Kirsten about,” said Maine-independent Senator Angus King, who once rejected the legislation but has since expressed his support. “And see why it needs such a wide scope.”
Mr. Grassley, who has been the same chairman of the committee many times over his decades in the Senate, is among those engaged in Mr. Reed and Mr. Inhofe.
“We’ve been waiting for almost a decade,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then. I urge my colleagues to give unanimous support to the protection of our men and women in the army and to allow the passage of this bill. “