What You Need To Know About The Military Sexual Assault Debate

PHOTO: Clair McCaskill
J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

The Senate could vote today on important amendments to a defense authorization bill regarding sexual assaults in the military, wrapping up an almost yearlong endeavor to reform how these crimes are prosecuted in the military. The high-profile debate has picked up steam in recent months with two well known female senators, both Democrats, on opposing sides of how it should best be handled.

With a potential vote coming as early as Wednesday night, here's what you need to know about the debate.

Fierce Floor Debate Ahead On Military Sexual Assault Proposals

1.
On the how-to's, the debate pits Gillibrand against McCaskill

There's no disagreement about the need to end the amount of sexual assault in the military, but there is a fight about the best way to do it. Two Democratic women, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., have emerged front and center as the faces in the fight over how to handle prosecution of sexual assaults in the military. Gillibrand is advocating for removing the chain of command from the prosecution of sexual assaults and other crimes in the military. She currently has the public support of 51 senators, but will need a total of 60 in order for her plan to pass.

But McCaskill is leading the charge against that position, arguing that removing the chain of command from prosecution could undermine the military's authority. Joined by Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Deb Fischer, R-Neb., McCaskill introduced her own amendment last week, which includes eliminating the good-soldier defense and allows sexual assault victims to challenge the military if they are discharged from service. Gillibrand has said she will support McCaskill's amendment.

2.
It has created some unlikely allies.

It's not very often that Gillibrand finds herself on the same side as Republicans like Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., but the two conservative firebrands signed on to the New York Democrat's plan a few months ago.

Nine Republican senators have announced their support for Gillibrand's measure – Cruz; Paul; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Mike Johanns, R-Neb.; Mark Kirk, R-Ill.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala.; David Vitter, R-La.; and Dean Heller, R-Nev.

Meanwhile, the top military brass at the Pentagon and Sen. Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have sided with McCaskill in wanting to preserve the chain of command's authority in prosecutions of military sexual assaults.

3.
But President Obama isn't picking sides.

The president has stressed the need to deal with the rising number of sexual assaults in the military, but he's refrained from weighing in on whether Gillibrand's or McCaskill's proposal is the best remedy for the problem.

Obama Won't Pick Sides in Debate Over Military Sexual Assault Reform

The White House declined repeatedly Tuesday to answer that question.

"The president does feel very strongly, as you know, having heard him discuss this. And we have been working with members of Congress on this issue," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday. "It is something, as I said, the president is very concerned about. And that's why he has directed [Defense] Secretary Hagel and the rest of his team to address this issue aggressively to make sure the victims are being helped and that perpetrators are being held accountable."

"On the underlying bill, I don't have any more insight on potential amendments at this time. What I can tell you is that we consider this to be a very important issue," Carney added.

4.
Last year, 26,000 cases of sexual assault in the military were reported.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon announced 26,000 sexual assaults in the military were reported – a 37% increase from the previous year.

That figure, coupled with a number of military scandals this year including the sex scandal at Lackland Air Force Base and others involving military officers charged with dealing with sexual assaults, ramped up the pressure to come up with a solution to the problem.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon released statistics that showed more sexual assaults were reported in the first nine month of fiscal year 2013 than in fiscal year of 2012. Between October 2012 and June 2013, 3,553 reports were filed, compared with the 3,374 reported in all of fiscal year 2012.

5.
Even if Gillibrand's plan doesn't pass, there are still historic reforms regarding military sexual assault that will be enacted.

The Senate Armed Services Committee already approved historic reforms that will be included in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014. The reforms include stripping commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, providing independent counsel to each victim that reports a sexual assault, and requiring a dishonorable discharge or dismissal for anyone convicted of sexual assault.

The bill also criminalizes retaliation against victims who have reported a sexual assault, creates a civilian review of cases that are not prosecuted, and eliminates the statute of limitations in these cases.

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