WASHINGTON — Concerns over the increased number of sexual assaults in the military spilled onto the Senate floor Wednesday in an hours-long debate that has divided Congress over the best way to handle the problem.
About 26,000 members of the military, mostly women, are believed to have been sexually assaulted in 2012 and unreported cases surged 35 percent between 2010 and 2012, the Defense Department estimates. But some have questioned whether the military is doing enough to respond, particularly after the Air Force’s chief of sexual assault prevention was arrested this past spring on suspicion of groping a woman outside a bar near the Pentagon.
At issue is whether to reduce the role of the commanding officers in deciding to pursue charges in an alleged attack. Service members have testified on Capitol Hill that the alleged crimes are going unreported by military personnel who are fearful of retaliation by their commanders. Cases that are investigated are often dismissed by commanders.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said Wednesday that of the 3,370 cases of reported sexual assault last year, 300 went to trial, representing just 1 percent of the total estimated 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact. She has proposed an amendment to the annual must-pass Defense authorization bill that would shift the decision-making process for prosecutions to the military’s legal arm.
“Instead of that commander making that decision, it will be a trained military prosecutor,” Gillibrand said in the opening of a six-hour floor debate. “There are too many command climates that are toxic, that do not ensure good order and discipline, that do not protect against rape and sexual assault.”
Support for Gillibrand’s campaign has been building for months among senators and service-member organizations. This week, her amendment won the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
But it remains unclear if the Gillibrand proposal will come to a vote, or reach the 60-vote threshold needed to break a filibuster in the Senate.
Not all Democrats back the New York senator’s approach, with some joining Republicans in raising objections. The Defense bill already included assault provisions that hew to the approach taken by the House, which retained the role of the commanders but limited their ability to dismiss cases.
That approach could be bolstered by an amendment from Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., that would allow victims to choose between civilian or military investigations.
Senators, including the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., have warned that removing the chain-of-command from the decision-making process would erode the ability of commanders to oversee their personnel.
“You’re doing the worst possible thing to solve the problem,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a former military prosecutor, during Wednesday’s debate. “You throw the military justice system into chaos; you take the commanders’ responsibility away.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has yet to weigh in. “I’m among those still listening to the arguments that have been made,” McConnell said this week. “I think everyone knows this is a very serious problem. The question is, what’s the best way to address it?”
With 350 amendments offered on the Defense bill, the Senate leaders may be unable to reach an agreement on how to dispatch with all the requests. Even in eras of fierce partisanship, the Defense bill, which sets pay for the troops and other policy changes, has passed Congress for almost 50 years.