They make an odd senatorial trio, there’s no doubt: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the Tea Party favorite; Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), the neo-libertarian firebrand; and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), the liberal champion of justice for sexual assault victims. But at a press conference (video here) on Capitol Hill Tuesday, the three stood together in support of Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), which would remove the reporting and prosecution of sex crimes from the chain of command, a measure staunchly opposed by leaders of the armed forces.
In joining with Gillibrand to support the MJIA, Cruz and Paul, both regarded as contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, likely hope to convey some compassion for women, especially since both men hold stringent anti-choice positions—as in no exceptions for rape, incest, or health of the woman.
Cruz would allow a narrow exception for a threat to the life of the woman, while the position held by Paul, who authored the unsuccessful “Life at Conception Act,” has become a bit murky since his March interview with CNN, in which he used vague language about how “every individual case is going to be different.”
Their alliance with the New York Democrat also shores up both men’s reputations as mavericks who are unafraid of bucking the Republican establishment as they set out to charm the right-wing base that will turn out for GOP presidential primary races, while simultaneously helping Gillibrand buck her own party’s leaders.
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The addition of Cruz and Paul to the MJIA’s list of co-sponsors brings the number to 34; Gillibrand needs to line up at least 51 in order to see the measure go to the Senate floor for debate.
Last month, during the mark-up of the annual defense appropriation, Gillibrand suffered a serious defeat when Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, refused to include Gillibrand’s measure in the final bill, even as he allowed other measures targeting the military’s sexual abuse crisis, including a ban on commanding officers overturning sexual assault convictions, and would make retaliation against victims a crime. Neither Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid nor President Barack Obama have expressed support for the MJIA, despite the lip service they’ve paid to ending the scourge of sexual assault in the military.
Refusing to let her measure die, Gillibrand continued to seek support, her staff keeping tally of each new vote promised on a whiteboard in her Senate offices, according to Politico’s Anna Palmer and Darren Samuelson. The votes promised by Cruz and Paul are big gets for Gillibrand, making her bill all the more bipartisan (Sens. Susan Collins [R-ME], Chuck Grassley [R-IA], and Mike Johanns [R-NE] were already on board), and setting up a showdown for the Empire State’s junior senator with Levin, the long-serving committee chair, as well as with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who, like Gillibrand, is one of the Senate’s rising stars.
Gillibrand’s measure became a matter of intense debate in June, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top military brass were hauled before the Armed Services Committee to address the military’s sexual assault crisis after the Pentagon issued a report that estimated some 26,000 incidents of “unwanted sexual contact” experienced by military personnel in the 2012 fiscal year, despite having received reports of only 3,374 sexual assaults.
Inconveniently for military leaders, a rash of news reports of sexual assaults and misconduct by military men surrounded the report’s release, including the May 7 arrest of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, then the top official in the Air Force’s sexual abuse prevention unit, who was charged with having groped a civilian in the parking lot of a Virginia shopping mall.
Advocates for survivors of sexual assault in the military have long contended that the armed forces’ chain-of-command justice system frequently punishes victims—half of whom are men—for reporting such crimes, especially since the perpetrator is often of higher rank than the victim. Retaliation is rampant, say victims’ advocates.
As chairman of the personnel subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee, Gillibrand looked at how such U.S. allies as Israel, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia dealt with their own sexual assault crises in their armed forces, and found that they removed the adjudication of such crimes from the chain of command. So rather than depending on her commanding officer to seek justice on her behalf, a woman raped by a fellow soldier would see that crime handled by a special prosecutor.
At the June hearing at which generals, admirals, and commandants testified to their commitment to ending the assault crisis, Gillibrand noted that in Israel, reporting of such crimes by their victims increased by 80 percent after the adjudication process was removed from the chain of command. And despite the existence of the military’s current crisis for at least two decades, none of the brass could say that they had explored with U.S. allies how the removal of such crimes from prosecution within the chain of command had affected their operations.
Sen. McCaskill took an adversary posture when interacting with military officers at the hearing, but when push came to shove, she stuck with the brass in opposing Gillibrand’s measure.
Watching the momentum gathering behind Gillibrand’s uphill climb, the military has launched a full-court press of lobbyists on Capitol Hill. In the end, the success or failure of Gillibrand’s effort will offer a reading on just who ultimately controls the military—the civilian government, as the Constitution demands, or the generals themselves. In the meantime, if offers an interesting lesson on the dynamics within both political parties.