Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's bill to change the way the military handles sexual assault cases will be endorsed by two conservative Republican senators and potential 2016 candidates: Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. Paul will appear with Gillibrand and other Democratic senators in a press conference on Tuesday, Politico's Darren Samuelsohn reports. Cruz voted for the bill when it failed in an armed services committee vote in June, and will support it as it comes up for debate, possibly by next week. This puts Gillibrand within 10 votes of a simple majority.
As several cases of sexual assault in the military made headlines over the last couple months, two bills were competing to change the system. One was Gillibrand's, which would take away military commanders' power to decide whether to prosecute a sexual assault case, and instead put it in the hands of an independent prosecutor. A bill from Sen. Claire McCaskill would change the system later in the process, blocking military commanders from overturning a court-martial conviction. McCaskill said in June she felt "the chain of command at the disposition phase—which in the military begins at the beginning, not the end—is not our main problem. Our main problem is the military doesn't even know how many rapes and sodomies they have."
Support from Paul and Cruz gives Gillibrand "critical conservative cover as she battles the Pentagon and hawks in both parties," Samuelsohn writes. How resistant the Pentagon is to change was clear in a committee hearing in June. The military's witnesses said the system wasn't broken—it's just that there was "failure of some commanders and leaders to implement the system correctly," Army chief of staff Ray Odierno said. The witneeses made it clear they didn't want civilians messing with that system. Marine Col. Tracy King said, "[Rape] reporting in the civilian community is even worse…. Well, they don't have a chain of command out there." (Rape reporting is not worse in the civilian community.) He added, "I read the newspapers too, and I see what's going on out there."
The hearing was not the end of the Pentagon's push to preserve the status quo. "The Pentagon has kept up a fierce lobbying campaign behind the scenes, but Gillibrand and her supporters believe the measure can fare better on the full Senate floor with senators less tied to the military" than those on the armed services committee, Politico reports. Gillibrand's bill has a chance because the issue is not perfectly split along party lines. Republican Sens. Susan Collins, Mike Johanns, Lisa Murkowski and Chuck Grassley have supported it.
Meanwhile, there has been some opposition from Gillibrand's fellow Democrats. Committee chair Carl Levin suggested an alternative—if a commander did not think a case should be prosecuted, but a judge advocate general did, the case would be kicked up to the civilian head of service. Decisions not to prosecute would be reviewed by the commander's boss. This would preserve the chain of command in military prosecutions.
According to Politico, Rand Paul found the compelling case for Gillibrand's bill was that it would remove the "conflicts of interest" when military commanders decide whether to prosecute, his spokeswoman said. Ted Cruz, on the other hand, noted that similar changes were made in the Israeli, German and British militaries, and they saw "marked improvement."