Senate Women Tackle Sexual Assault in the Military

Senate to vote as early as Wednesday on historic tightening of code

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J. Scott Applewhite/ AP

Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Sen. Barbara Mikulski is on her way up.

An alien observing C-Span2 for the first time on Tuesday could be forgiven for thinking that the American people only elect women to the U.S. Senate. One after another, ten female senators from both parties took to the floor to show their unity on reforms on how the military deals with sexual assault.

The reforms, attached to the National Defense Authorization Act currently before the Senate, are actually supported by all 20 of the women in the Senate. The show of female unity on the bulk of the provisions in the bill covered a months-long rift amongst the women over a single provision authored by New York Democrat Kristen Gillibrand. That measure would take the handling of sexual assault cases out of the chain of command and give it to the Judge Advocate General Corps. Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill has offered a competing amendment, likely to pass, which leaves the power within the chain of command.

“I say to the press: we know you like conflict, we know you like controversy. You particularly want to see it among the women,” Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and dean of the Senate women said on the floor. “We are trying to govern the way we were elected to govern, and I’m proud of what we’re going to do with the reforms that are there. I’m proud of the way we’ve gone about it. And if we disagree on some matters here or there, that’s what debate, rigor and civility will be all about.”

The Senate women take offense when the sexual assault in the military debate is pigeon holed as a “woman’s issue,” and their differences portrayed as the Senate’s first catfight. It was the presence of a record seven women on the 26-member Armed Services Committee that first drew national attention to the issue as female senators grilled and embarrassed generals and admirals testifying before the committee on the issue. Ultimately, like any piece of legislation, whatever wins the most votes on the Senate floor will be included in the bill and there is little doubt that all 20 women will stand united behind the final bill.

The Pentagon grew so worried about the prospects of Gillibrand’s bill—she had 50 votes as of Tuesday—that in August it instituted a series of changes sought by both Gillibrand and McCaskill, such as giving anyone alleging sexual assault independent counsel. The Pentagon, like McCaskill, argues that taking the process out of the chain of command corrupts the system and wouldn’t lead to more reporting. The brass hopes that by instituting the changes ahead of the vote, it will prevent Gillibrand from reaching the 60 she needs to overcome a filibuster. McCaskill’s bill, which is expected to pass, enjoys the support of Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and most Republicans. Whichever amendment passes, the 30 reforms supported by all the women are the most drastic in military history. Votes on both amendments could come as early as Wednesday, according to Senate leadership.

The idea of getting all the women together on sexual assault in the military began in the summer. At the end of June on a stormy summer evening, the 20 Senate women gathered in the ceremonial Appropriations Committee hearing room in the U.S. Capitol. Under murals depicting Dionysus, the God of Ritual Madness, they privately debated the competing proposals. In the middle of the hour-long meeting, McCaskill made an impassioned plea for her amendment. It fell flat, with 16 of the 20 supporting Gillibrand’s bill. Suddenly McCaskill’s long career as a prosecutor championing of victims of sexual assault was being called into question by the very people she had expected to back her: her fellow female senators.

At the meeting, the women all agreed that it would be more productive to underline the fact that the bills are 95% identical and that whichever one passes, it would represent the most significant overhaul of the issue in Congressional history. And that was the message that all 20 women stuck to in events at home or traveling abroad for the entire five-week summer recess. After banding together to reopen the government (as I write about here), the female senators met again on Nov. 4 with the women of the cabinet at a dinner hosted by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. There they discussed how best to highlight their historic agreements rather than their divisions and the idea of having as many women as possible speak on the floor Tuesday grew from there. Whichever bill passes, it’s striking the lengths most of the female senators have gone through to ensure both McCaskill and Gillibrand emerge winners from the debate. For the women in the Senate, winning doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be a loser.