This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Within the next two weeks, Sen. Claire McCaskill expects a showdown on the military battle she’s been waging for months with fellow Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-NY.
At issue? How best to reform how the military handles sexual assaults.
McCaskill, D-Mo., is promoting a plan – backed by the Pentagon – which would curb commanders’ powers when it comes to such cases. They would retain control of court-martial proceedings, but could no longer overturn jury verdicts in sexual assault cases and couldn’t substitute dishonorable discharge or dismissal.
Gillibrand would remove commanders from the picture, and give military prosecutors the power to decide which sexual assault cases should be pursued.
McCaskill has touted her background as the former Jackson County prosecutor, where she handled many sex crimes, as she has argued that sexual assault cases need to remain within the chain of command.
The two senators – who both sit on the Armed Services Committee -- have been vigorously competing for support, and attracting national press attention as a result.
“The premise of (Gillibrand’s) argument is a myth, that if we make this changes, that is the only way we will get these victims to come forward,.” McCaskill told reporters Tuesday in a conference call. Gillibrand, she said, has painted a portrait that “it’s victims versus commanders...The reality is much more complex than that.’’
McCaskill contended that military prosecutors often have been more reluctant than commanders to pursue sexual assault cases. “We are aware of dozens of cases…where prosecutors have declined to do these cases, and commanders have insisted they do these cases,” she said.
“In our reforms, we’re going to remove commanders’ capacity to abuse their power, and we’re going to put checks on their power, and we are going to keep them accountable for making a difference in this area,” McCaskill continued. “It’s hard to imagine that the commanders are going to be able to be held accountable if they can wash their hands of any responsibility. And that’s what her proposal would do.’’
McCaskill emphasized that some of her proposals are already in the defense authorization bill that will serve as the template for any sexual assault provisions. “Many of the reforms that I have advanced are already in the bill,” she said, noting that the panel rejected Gillibrand’s offerings.
“Blocking commanders “from altering the outcomes…Making retaliation a crime. All of these reforms are in the bill,” McCaskill said.
A few days ago, as part of her blitz, McCaskill lauded the latest Pentagon statistics that show a 46 percent increase in reported military sexual assault cases so far this year. She argued that the numbers didn’t necessary show an increase in such crimes, but rather that more victims were gaining the courage to step forward.
“These numbers, while a comfort to no one, represent progress—and hopefully show that with new protections in place, and historic reforms on the way, victims will have the confidence to come forward, without us removing all accountability from commanders,” McCaskill said. “It also shows that a system that includes a role for commanders, and holds them accountable with historic reforms, will work for victims.”
On Tuesday, McCaskill acknowledged to reporters that she and Gillibrand will both face challenges in getting either amendment added to the defense bill on the Senate floor, since 60 votes would likely be required for either proposal to proceed.
McCaskill said she was prepared for “a procedural filibuster” that could kill off one or both proposals.