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Languishing Sexual Assault Bill Gets Another Push in Senate

Legislation addresses safety of sexual assault victims on college campuses

A bill that would hold colleges more accountable for sexual assaults but that has not gained traction despite bipartisan support is getting a new push from senators, including Missouri’s Roy Blunt, the vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

Since its introduction in 2014 by Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, the bill (S 590) has been backed by Blunt and his Republican colleagues Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

The measure is expected to be included in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act ( PL 110-315 ), but there are concerns that the act will not pass this year because of an election-shortened legislative calendar. Still, there’s an urgency to pass the sexual assault legislation, even if it has to be separate from the larger bill, McCaskill said at a Tuesday news conference attended by an array of bipartisan supporters.

“There has been an inability to get consensus on the reauthorization of Higher Education and floor time for that,” McCaskill said. “So we’re working to see if part of the reauthorization could occur and we could put important parts of this bill in that legislation and move it forward.”

McCaskill said she had been working with Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee,  and the ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, on finding a way to pass the bill without the entire reauthorization. Last year, the committee granted a short-term extension to the Perkins Loans program, another measure that was supposed to be a part of the higher education bill’s reauthorization.

“It’s really a committee decision at this point,” McCaskill said.

Alexander could not be reached for comment. Murray said she was hopeful that both the bill and the reauthorization could be passed within the year.

“It would be a great opportunity to address that critical issue in the Higher Education Act,” she said.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, an early co-sponsor, said there could also be an opportunity to fund aspects of the bill through the appropriations process, an option she admitted would be more difficult even with the support of Blunt, chairman of the Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee.

Up-Or-Down Vote

Even if the higher education bill doesn’t come to the floor, Gillibrand said she is still hoping for a vote on the sexual assault measure.

“If the higher education bill doesn’t go through, we’ll ask an up-or-down vote just on our bill,” Gillibrand said. “We are asking leadership to allow us a vote regardless of the future of the higher education bill.”

The legislation would enact changes meant to help colleges focus on an atmosphere of safety and security for victims of sexual assault. Colleges would designate a confidential adviser for students to discuss the crime, help them decide whether to report it, and offer physical and mental health services.

Schools would be required to issue campus climate surveys, allowing students to anonymously report instances of sexual assault. The Association of American Universities surveyed 27 campuses in 2015 and found that less than a third of sexual assault and misconduct incidents were reported to an organization or agency.

The bill would also allow the Education Department to fine schools for violating certain sexual violence rules under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. Fines could be as large as 1 percent of a college’s operating budget, a fee that could reach millions at some schools.

Tuesday's news conference was not the first one the bill's backers have called to push the measure, but McCaskill said she was adamant they would sustain the effort until action was taken.

“This is our way of saying we’re still here,” she said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

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