- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2013

It has been looming for months, but Congress‘ debate over how to deal with sexual assaults in the U.S. military could get lost in the end-of-year shuffle as Senate Democrats find themselves with little time to tackle the budget, presidential nominations and a host of other major priorities.

The Senate began the debate in November as part of its annual defense policy bill, but the sprawling measure got mired in a dispute between Republicans and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, over how many amendments he would allow for votes.

The amendments dealing with revamping the military’s sexual assault policy got caught in the pileup, and those involved in the debate said it’s doubtful things will improve when the Senate returns for a two-week end-of-year sprint.

“Given the actions two weeks ago, I think the outlook doesn’t look great for additional amendment votes, but it’s still something we’d like to see and something we’ll still push for,” said Drew Pusateri, a spokesman for Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat.

Sexual assault is one of the most high-profile problems facing the military today. Officials worry that many victims do not report the crimes for fear of retaliation from peers and superiors.

The National Defense Authorization Act was supposed to be the vehicle for writing a solution.

Ms. McCaskill has proposed a policy that would restrict some of a commander’s authority to overturn a jury conviction, would require convicted service members to be dishonorably discharged and would mandate independent review of a case if a commander decides not to prosecute it.

But a proposal from Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, New York Democrat, would go further by stripping military commanders of their ability to prosecute serious military crimes, including sexual assault. Instead, independent, impartial prosecutors would make the decision to pursue a case, preventing retaliation by bosses and peers.

The Service Women’s Action Network, which supports Ms. Gillibrand’s amendment, is still hopeful for a vote and plans to lobby senators during their two-week recess, policy director Greg Jacob said.

When the Senate reconvenes, he said, the group will use social media, mail and telephone campaigns to highlight victims’ stories for lawmakers.

“For us, the longer the bill has been off the floor, the longer it’s provided us to share things like this with offices,” he said. “If the NDAA is delayed again, or if NDAA moves forward without the Gillibrand amendment attached, these are the kinds of conversations we’ll continue to have.”

Last month, the Gillibrand amendment was short of the 60 votes needed to pass. Still, Mr. Jacob said, it’s important to get a vote as soon as possible. Even if it fails, it will give lobbyists more information to use in next year’s push and send a message to the military and the country that Congress takes the issue seriously, he said.

“There’s been such little legislation that’s happened this year that what has come to the floor for a vote, it generally does because it’s an important issue,” he said. “To bring it to the floor for a vote is to recognize the importance of the issue and the importance of military justice reform.”

The House this year passed its defense policy bill, which includes provisions to combat military sexual assault, including stripping commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions and mandate dishonorable discharge for those convicted, similar to Ms. McCaskill’s proposal.

The defense policy bill is considered crucial legislation, and top House and Senate lawmakers are negotiating a compromise even without passage in the Senate.

Whether those negotiations include new sexual assault language in a final deal remains to be seen.

But both sides are preparing to have the fight again next year, just in case.

Mr. Jacobs said Ms. Gillibrand could introduce her amendment as a standalone bill, allowing it to be considered outside the defense policy debate.

Ms. McCaskill has introduced her amendment as a stand-alone bill, Mr. Pusateri said.

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