WASHINGTON — Over nearly a decade, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has painstakingly cobbled together a bipartisan Senate majority for legislation that would overhaul the way the military handles sexual assault and other serious crimes, a shift that many experts say is long overdue.
Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, has won backing from President Biden — something President Obama never openly gave — and numerous colleagues who voted against the bill the last time it came to the floor, a rare turn of events in a deeply divided body.
But now she is running up against a final hurdle: opposition from the leaders of her chamber’s Armed Services Committee, Senators Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, and James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma. Hardly a political sweater set, the two men, both Army veterans who arrived in the Senate in the mid-1990s, nonetheless often coordinate like one on military matters.
Reed, 71, and Inhofe, 86, have combined to push back against Gillibrand’s legislation and delay any move toward a swift vote, a stance that many of the bill’s backers say shows far more deference to military commanders and committee protocols than justified given the decades of failure in protecting victims in the armed forces. Gillibrand’s bill would cut out the military chain of command from decisions over prosecutions of service members for sexual assault, as well as many other serious crimes. It would represent a sea change for the military justice system.
“This is a remarkable moment for an extraordinarily important cause,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut and a longstanding supporter of the change, said in an interview last week. Getting the legislation past Reed and Inhofe, he said, was “part of this mosaic.”
The landscape is emblematic of a growing bipartisan discontent in Congress with military leaders on a number of fronts, and in tandem, with old-line congressional deference to commanders on policy.
The conflict played out over several days last week on the Senate floor as Gillibrand — flanked by the two conservative Republican senators from Iowa, Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst, and Blumenthal — made a highly unusual procedural attempt to get her bill a vote by the full Senate, bypassing the Armed Services Committee. Gillibrand and many of her supporters fear that by keeping the bill in the committee, where it will be included in the debate over the annual defense bill, it will end up either never receiving a vote or falling prey to a last-minute excision, as similar measures have in the past.
“The committee has failed survivors over the last 10 years,” Gillibrand said on the floor. “And I do not think it is in their purview to make this ultimate decision.”
Ernst concurred. “If a foreign power were to attack any of our servicemen and women overseas, there would be a stampede of senators coming to the floor and demanding action,” she said. “Now I hear only the footsteps of those coming to stop us from consideration of something that would help prevent attacks on our servicemen and women by one of their own.”
Reed, balking at a remarkable rebuke from a committee member of his own party, moved with Inhofe to stop senators from trying to advance the bill outside the committee, where it can be amended to his liking.
“I commit to ensuring that every idea and amendment brought by our committee members is given due consideration,” Reed said. He has said he finds Gillibrand’s bill too broad.
If it could get to the Senate floor, Gillibrand’s bill would easily clear the 60-vote filibuster threshold that stymies many other pieces of legislation. She has 66 other senators who have signed on — including many who voted against the same bill in 2014, arguing it would undermine commanders — and a total of more than 70 who have agreed to vote yes.
But Inhofe remains opposed to removing the military’s chain of command from the prosecutions of service members for sexual assaults.
“Those of us in the military have very strong feelings about the role of the commander,” he said, referring to his past life as a private first class. In an e-mail later, he added, “Unfortunately, this bill frankly has a lot of other deficiencies that will make it difficult and time-consuming to implement, which will create an unstable justice system, even creating the potential that convictions made during this transition could be overturned.”
Reed has said he is now open to changes in the way sexual assault is adjudicated — after years of resisting any such move — but does not want other crimes included in the bill.
He prefers the suggestions of a panel appointed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who made addressing this issue among his first priorities. That commission has yet to release its final recommendations, but has signaled that independent military lawyers reporting to a special victims prosecutor should take over the role that commanders currently play in deciding whether to court-martial those accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment, or domestic violence.
Gillibrand’s measure covers a broader array of serious crimes.
“I think that I support the efforts to move sexually related crimes,” Reed said in an interview last week. “I think that it’s important to have a very robust and vigorous debate on the other provisions, which are just general products and not related to sexual content.”
Grassley, who has been a committee chairman himself many times over his decades in the Senate, is among those bucking Reed and Inhofe.
“We have been waiting almost a decade,” he said. “There is no need to wait any longer. I urge my colleagues to show unanimous support for protecting our men and women in military and allow this bill to pass.”