Gillibrand confident on sexual assault bill despite opposition

Updated on 3/3/14 at 11:58 a.m.

With votes on two Senate proposals to reform the military justice system just days away, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand hasn't given up on her fight to take sexual assault prosecution decisions out of the hands of military commanders.

The New York Democrat has faced off with top Pentagon officials and members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in her quest to put military lawyers, not commanders, in charge of making the decision about whether to prosecute a sexual assault. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., had led the charge on a competing effort to keep the decision to prosecute within the chain of command, but take away the ability of commanders to overturn a conviction. That and other reforms were implemented in the 2014 defense authorization that passed in December, but McCaskill is offering an a less controversial alternative to Gillibrand's amendment that strengthens some of the reforms already passed, eliminates the "good soldier" defense for those accused, and allows victims a formal say in whether their case is tried in civilian or military court, among other things. The two proposals are set to receive side-by-side votes within the next two weeks.

Gillibrand only has 55 public supporters, including herself, and she'll almost certainly need to get 60 votes for the measure to pass. She's confident she can get that kind of support.

"I think we're going to pass this bill. I think we have the votes we need. We already have a majority of the Senate behind it," Gillibrand told CBS News' Bob Schieffer. "We have more support than even declared and I think we will get the 60 votes necessary to overcome the filibuster and even 60 votes for the measure."

Part of the uphill battle for Gillibrand has been working against Pentagon leaders who think her methods would actually decrease accountability among commanders.

In a separate interview with Schieffer, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel commended lawmakers who have been working toward a solution, but he threw cold water on Gillibrand's proposed reforms.

"Commanders are accountable. They're accountable to their people, to their systems. That's the way the military has to work," he explained. "But if you disconnect the commanders...then you were taking away a certain responsibility of that commander on not only knowing what's going on in his or her command, but actually having some responsibility. I don't want to do that. I want more responsibility put on our commanders, not less."

Responding to Hagel's comments, Gillibrand took another view on what it means to hold commanders responsible.

"I would like to give commanders more responsibility and more accountability and more transparency, because Secretary of Defenses, since Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense nearly 25 years ago, have said zero tolerance for sexual assault. And last year alone, 26,000 rapes and sexual assaults in our military and only one out of 10 reporting. So the reason why I want to take the decision-making out of the chain of command is because we need to hold these commanders responsible," she said. "They are the only ones responsible to prevent these rapes from happening, creating a command climate where victims can come forward, and then making sure that they're not retaliated against...It's time to stop the status quo."

Hagel argued that the increase in number of sexual assaults reported is actually a sign that the military's efforts to focus on the victims is working because they feel confident that something will be done.

"People haven't reported, because they've been ostracized or it's been the victim's fault. And we're changing that. We're not where we need to be yet, but to your point about taking commanders out, they don't have the overall power to change everything now," he said.

Jake Miller contributed to this report

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that McCaskill's bill that is up for a vote strips commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions. That reform was already passed as part of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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