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Government, Politics & Issues

McCaskill, Blunt back effort to combat sexual assault in the military

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 23, 2013: WASHINGTON – Missouri’s senators may not agree on many national issues, but U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s new bill that aims to deter sexual violence in the military picked up a GOP leadership co-sponsor on Thursday when U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt signed on.

The "Better Enforcement for Sexual Assault Free Environments" (BE SAFE) Act, announced earlier in the day by McCaskill, D-Mo., and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is one of several bills in Congress that take different approaches to the problem.

This one is the second bill on the sexual assault issue co-authored by McCaskill, who last week joined U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in sponsoring legislation to require the Pentagon to establish stricter criteria for personnel assigned to sexual assault prevention. 

"The problems the U.S. military have had dealing with this issue — whether it’s aggressively prosecuting perpetrators or effectively protecting survivors — are well chronicled and have gone on far too long," McCaskill said Thursday.

Announcing later in the day that he would be an original co-sponsor, Blunt, R-Mo., said that "sexual assault in the military is simply intolerable." The McCaskill-Collins bill "will help ensure that critical reforms are made in America’s Armed Forces,” he said.

Blunt, the fifth-ranking senator in GOP leadership, serves with McCaskill on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and also has a seat, along with Collins, on the defense appropriations subcommittee.

The bill’s main House sponsors are U.S. Reps. Mike Turner , R-Ohio, and Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., who are co-chairs of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus. This week, a House panel approved a provision with a similar approach, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, predicted that this session's main defense authorization bill would include such a change in military law. 

While McCaskill and Blunt agree on many Missouri issues, they often clash on national issues. This topic is a major exception. Relations between the Show-Me senators also have improved since McCaskill's re-election last fall. Earlier this week, Blunt, McCaskill and their spouses dined together at a tony Italian restaurant in Washington. 

"I've known Sen. McCaskill a long time," Blunt told reporters this week. "The areas that are focused on Missouri - more often than not - we are working together on. And that's good. I'm not opposed to finding things to work on with [senators] from the other side."

The McCaskill-Collins bill introduced Thursday would:

·  Remove a base commander’s power to change or dismiss an adjudged court-martial conviction for any charge other than a minor offense.

·  Require written justification for any changes a base commander makes to a sexual assault-related sentence, and require some input from the victim.

·  Mandate that military personnel found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy (or attemped sex crimes) be punished by, at a minimum, a dismissal or dishonorable discharge.

·  Eliminate the current five-year statute of limitations on Trial by Courts-Martial for sexual assault and sexual assault of a child.

"The Department of  Defense has a no-tolerance policy toward sexual assault, but the culture does not match that policy," Collins said in a statement. "Individuals who commit acts of rape or sexual assault have no place in the United States Armed Forces."

A spokesman for McCaskill said she is "taking a look at" another Senate bill on sexual violence in the military, whose main sponsor is U.S. Sen, Kirsten Gillebrand, D-N.Y. 

That bill – which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has questioned - would give military prosecutors, rather than base commanders, the power to decide which sexual assault cases to try. And it would stop commanders from reviewing and changing verdicts in such cases.

The chairman of the Armed Services Committee, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told the New York Times this week that he had some doubts about the impact of Gillebrand’s bill, and he plans to hold hearings on the issue in June.

“Taking away the power of a commander has some very significant implications in terms of the commander’s ability to deal with the problem,” Levin said. Even so, he predicted that Congress will take action. “There will be legislation, I’m confident, that makes changes” in military law regarding sexual assaults, he said.

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