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

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

With a vote in the Senate approaching, the White House has steered clear from picking sides in the fight over how best to address prosecutions of sexual assault in the military.

The White House today declined repeatedly to say whether President Obama supports an amendment that would take prosecution of military sexual assaults out of the chain of command.

"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 today. "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.

The Senate is at odds over an amendment offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., which removes the chain of command from the prosecution of sexual assaults in the military, meaning commanders would not handle the cases of their subordinates. Earlier this week, Gillibrand told ABC News' Martha Raddatz that she hoped the president would come out in support of her bill.

"I'm so hopeful that he will. Because this is an opportunity for him to show extraordinary leadership on this issue," Gillibrand said on This Week Sunday.

Despite the White House's silence on the proposal, Gillibrand's bill has the public backing of 50 senators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who announced his support today.

Reid's approval marks a key development in Gillibrand's progress as he went against the wishes of Sen. Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has led the fight against Gillibrand's plan. But Gillibrand's amendment still falls short of the 60 votes needed to clear a procedural vote on the plan.

McCaskill, who introduced an amendment of her own last week, expressed frustration today that the debate over Gillibrand's bill has drowned out the historic reforms to military sexual assault prosecutions that already exist in the National Defense Authorization Act, which will be voted on in coming weeks.

"I would be less than candid if I didn't say it has been frustrating to have one policy difference dominate the discussion of this issue over the previous few weeks without anyone even realizing the historic reforms that are contained in this bill," McCaskill said on the Senate floor.

A bipartisan group of ten women took to the Senate floor this morning to laud the historic reforms already included in the defense authorization bill. The reforms approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year include stripping commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, providing independent counsels to each victim that reports a sexual assault, and requiring a dishonorable discharge or dismissal for anyone that is 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.

A vote on Gillibrand's plan could come as early as tonight or Wednesday.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released today found that six out of 10 Americans support letting independent prosecutors decide whether to file charges in sexual assault cases in the U.S. military.

ABC News' Mary Bruce and Gary Langer contributed to this report.