Senators are gearing up for a pre-recess floor battle on how to best respond to sexual assault in the armed forces.
The newest round kicked off Thursday with the two camps, led by Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, holding dueling press events on the sexual-assault issue.
First, Gillibrand appeared with a number of fellow senators and sexual-assault survivors at a televised news conference. The timing was such that reporters who did not leave the event on the fourth floor of the Russell Building early missed much of the pen-and-pad briefing with McCaskill and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.
Both sides note significant advances made in the enactment of the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill, but they want to go further.
The senators involved had intended to use the underlying defense bill as the vehicle for the debate, but that plan was derailed in one of last year's many standoffs over consideration of amendments on the floor. As a result, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pledged to bring up the military sexual-assault proposals as a standalone debate during the current work period.
Reid is among the public supporters of the Gillibrand measure.
The defense policy bill now bars the much-criticized practice of commanders throwing out convictions and makes other important changes. McCaskill and Ayotte are offering an alternative to Gillibrand's bill, which they contend has a number of unworkable provisions.
"The months between an incident and the time that you have to come in front of your accuser is excruciatingly bad. There is no way that [Gillibrand's] proposal could be implemented in a way that would allow victims to get through that process more quickly," McCaskill said. "The key here is making sure that they are respected and deferred to, that they have support, that they have their rights explained to them, and we have taken care of that in the underlying defense authorization bill."
Military sexual-assault victims, advocacy organizations and fellow senators from both sides of the aisle joined Gillibrand in her push to remove prosecution of certain crimes from the military chain of command. That legislation has 53 announced supporters, with several others behind the scenes, according to Gillibrand.
"Nowhere in America would we allow a boss to decide [whether] an employee was sexually assaulted, except in the U.S. military," Gillibrand said. "We owe them better."
Gillibrand and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., both said that their proposal has a chance to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a potential filibuster.
"Let me be clear. Yes, I think we can get to 60," Boxer said. "We're working the list. We think we can, but I just say this: We shouldn't have to get to 60. It ought to be an up-or-down vote. Justice should never be filibustered."
The idea of not requiring a super-majority threshold on such consequential would be highly unusual in the current Senate, a point made my McCaskill.
"I think both bills will have to get 60 votes to proceed. I mean, we've got an awful lot of bills around here that I care about that ... had to get 60 votes," McCaskill said. "I don't know why we could make an exemption for this particular area when we haven't made it for so many other areas."