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Military sexual assault dispute between McCaskill, Gillibrand, could arise again

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., left and Sen. Clair McCaskill, D-Mo.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By CHUCK RAASCH | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: June 9, 2015

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Debate over the Pentagon's proposed $612 spending bill for 2016 is about to rekindle a battle from last year over sexual assault in the military, a disagreement that has put frequent allies Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., on opposite sides.

Gillibrand wants prosecution of military sexual assault to be done by independent, trained, military prosecutors, leaving other crimes to be prosecuted within the chain of command. Last week, Gillibrand blasted President Barack Obama and Pentagon leaders for what she says is insufficient progress in dealing with sexual assault in the military and vowed to try to amend the National Defense Appropriations Act to do that. Debate on that bill continues in the Senate this week.

McCaskill favors keeping the prosecution inside the military chain of command and her position won last year. She says there has been noticeable progress since legislation she sponsored passed the Senate early in 2014, and her advisers expect the same result when Gillibrand attempts to amend the Pentagon spending bill.

Gillibrand cited a recent Pentagon survey showing that 62 percent of women in the military face some kind of retaliation after reporting an assault. Gillibrand told Politico that those findings show that Pentagon promises to make it easier to report sexual assault in the military are not sufficiently working.

"I wish the President would show more leadership," Gillibrand told Politico. "I wish he would understand how this is actually negatively affecting good order and discipline. It's affecting our ability to have our best and brightest serving."

Gillibrand's efforts failed by five votes to defeat a filubuster in March, 2014, and McCaskill prevailed in keeping prevention efforts and prosecution inside the military. McCaskill's aides believe tha the election of more Republican senators in last fall's elections make Gillibrand's task even more difficult this time.

McCaskill makes a glass-half-full argument in defense of her law. Her office Monday issued a background report pointing out that a 2014 Pentagon study showed a 29 percent drop in incidents of unwanted sexual contact since 2012, and that the number of reported incidents were up 11 percent from 2013 to 2014 -- proof that efforts to lower incidence and increase reporting of those incidents that did occur were going in the right direction.

McCaskill spokesman John LaBombard said the Missouri senator believes that retaliation against victims who do report is still too high, but that much of the retaliation is peer-to-peer, not from commanders to people filing complaints. Stripping commanders of those responsibilities by sending prosecution outside the military would backfire by making commanders less accountable, he said.

LaBombard issued a statement from McCaskill that said: "With incidents down, reporting up, and survivors reporting more confidence in the chain of command, I believe most of my Senate colleagues are aware of the concrete progress being made and the historic protections we now have in place for our victims."

This isn't the only amendment that could stir up debate around the Pentagon spending blueprint. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said he plans to offer an amendment that would continue operation of the Export-Import bank beyond its expiration date at the end of the month.

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