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Military Sexual Assault Reform Stalls as Senate Turns Focus to Syria

Military Sexual Assault Reform Stalls as Senate Turns Focus to Syria

September 9, 2013 — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's (D-N.Y.) proposal to overhaul the military's handling of sexual assaults is on hold as the Senate focuses on whether to authorize military action in Syria, Politico reports (Samuelsohn, Politico, 9/8).

Under Gillibrand's measure, military cases involving crimes punishable by more than one year of confinement would be removed from the chain of command. As of last month, Gillibrand had the support of a few dozen senators and was working to secure a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. She aims to attach the proposal to a larger defense authorization bill (Women's Health Policy Report, 8/1).

However, as senators return from the August recess, Gillibrand's effort to recruit more supporters is on hold.

Although her proposal will still get a vote -- as promised by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) -- the timeline is becoming less clear in the face of possible action against Syria. Senior aides have suggested a vote on the sexual assault measure could be pushed back until after Christmas.

Delay Could Help or Hurt Proposal

Gillibrand and her supporters said the delay could work in their favor by creating additional opportunities for sexual assault victims to speak to senators.

Amendment co-sponsor Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that the issue "has a real force" behind it and that a delay would not hurt the momentum. However, Politico notes that recruiting supporters could be complicated by senators' hesitation to confront the Pentagon during a time of international conflict.

Some supporters are concerned that undecided senators, along with the Department of Defense, are eager to allow the sexual assault debate to fall out of the spotlight so they are not forced to take sides "either for or against the wishes of rape victims," according to Politico.

Gillibrand's aides have said she will not lobby senators on the proposal while the debate over Syria continues. Gillibrand spokesperson Glen Caplin said that "[t]he full focus of Congress in terms of our military" will be on Syria, "as it should be." He added that "Sen. Gillibrand will continue to work on earning the support of her colleagues for reforming the military justice system at the appropriate time."

Lobbying Continues During August Recess

The recent change in priorities in the Senate itself did not stop lobbying on the sexual assault issue over August recess.

Victim-advocacy group Protect Our Defenders delivered more than 260 letters to senators during the recess, in addition to holding more than a dozen meetings with senators and aides in both Washington, D.C., and senators' home states. Supporters also said ongoing media attention to high-profile military sexual assault cases would keep the issue at the political forefront.

Meanwhile, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) -- an outspoken opponent of the amendment -- co-authored a USA Today opinion piece with Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) saying that the proposal was "a risky approach for victims ... that would increase the risk of retaliation, weaken our ability to hold commanders accountable and lead to fewer prosecutions."

According to McCaskill spokesperson John LaBombard, McCaskill also spoke to colleagues during the recess to "make the case for ... historic reforms," dismiss misconceptions and highlight risks to victims if the proposal is passed. The vote on the amendment "is bound to be close," LaBombard said (Politico, 9/8).