WASHINGTON — A deep division runs through the U.S. Senate over how to handle sexual assaults in the military — and it zigzags across party lines.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., finds herself alone among senators from Nebraska and Iowa in opposing a proposal by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to remove sexual assault and other serious criminal cases from the military chain of command.
Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, has been pushing her proposal in the wake of a series of sexual assault scandals, as well as statistics that indicate a rising number of sexual assaults in the military — with an estimated 26,000 incidents last year.
Gillibrand says she has the support of a majority of the Senate, including Sens. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is still weighing the matter, but he was a co-sponsor of Gillibrand's original proposal.
But Fischer, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the proposal would undermine commanders' accountability.
The Senate could vote today on the Gillibrand proposal, which is being considered as part of a defense authorization bill.
Grassley has been particularly outspoken in his support for the Gillibrand plan, saying Wednesday on the Senate floor that keeping cases within the chain of command would be inappropriate.
“We've tried working in the current system. This isn't a new issue,” Grassley said. “Military leaders have been making emphatic promises about tackling the problem of sexual assault for years and years, but the problem only seems to be getting worse.”
He said the military's culture must change to assure victims that action will be taken if they report assaults — a change that can be accomplished by handing the cases to professional prosecutors.
Grassley suggested that opposition to the move results, in part, from how intimidating top military brass can be when they come to Capitol Hill.
“I know some senators will be nervous about the fact that the military is lobbying against this legislation,” Grassley said. “There's a certain awe that permeates among senators when people with stars on their shoulders appear among us.”
Opponents say it's not about intimidation — it's about trusting the uniformed men and women the country puts in charge.
Fischer has helped lead the charge among a group of senators who oppose the Gillibrand amendment and instead favor an alternative set of additional initiatives that they say put the focus on helping victims.
During her weekly conference call Wednesday with reporters, Fischer noted changes already included in the legislation: commanders stripped of their ability to overturn jury convictions, victims provided with special counselors, and retaliation against victims made a crime.
She noted the additional proposals she has offered — along with Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. — which include eliminating the “good soldier” defense.
She reiterated her opposition to removing cases from the chain of command.
“Commanders have to have that accountability to the public, to the family members, to the parents of the best and the brightest that are under their command,” she said. “And if you remove that chain of command for all of these offenses, we're going to lose that and the commander will lose that bond that he has with his soldiers.”
She said her views are shared by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military personnel she has spoken with in Nebraska.
“They all stress the commanders are the ones that take care of their troops and they have to be involved in this,” she said. “If you take this out of the chain of command, a commander must step back and is not able to participate at all, and I think that is a huge, huge mistake.”
Grassley said Wednesday that he saw no legitimacy to such arguments, however, saying it's past time for “tweaks” to the system.
“I know it's easier to support incremental reforms,” Grassley said. “That's even prudent in some cases. However, when we're talking about something as serious and life-altering as sexual assault we cannot afford to wait any longer.”