WASHINGTON In a striking showdown between Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and a member of his own party, Levin said Tuesday that he would strip a measure aimed at curbing sexual assault in the military out of a defense spending bill.
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has offered a measure that would give military prosecutors rather than commanders the power to decide which sexual assault crimes to try, with the goal of increasing the number of people who report crimes without fear of retaliation.
Levin, D-Mich., said he would replace Gillibrand's measure which has 27 co-sponsors, including four Republicans with one that would require a senior military officer to review decisions by commanders who decline to prosecute sexual assault cases. Although Levin's measure would change the current system, it would keep prosecution of sexual assault cases within the chain of command, as the military wants.
Levin's decision to support military brass in their resistance to Gillibrand's proposal sets up a confrontation between a long-serving chairman of the committee with strong ties to the armed forces and a relatively new female member one of a record seven women now serving on the committee who has made sexual assault in the military a signature issue.
"They basically embrace the status quo here," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a co-sponsor of Gillibrand's bill. "It's outrageous."
A recent Pentagon survey found an estimated 26,000 assaults took place last year. Senior military officials have repeatedly traipsed to Capitol Hill this spring to lament the issue but have been ridiculed by members of both parties of the Armed Services Committee for failing to make a dent in the problem.
In an odd twist Tuesday, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Congress could seek to replace commanders in power with state prosecutors to deal with the military sexual assault cases.
"To do things as they've always been done is not acceptable," Leahy said.
Leahy made his comments during a spending hearing that included Hagel and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"I'm just throwing that out there," Leahy said. "I'm not looking for an answer."
State courts already have the authority over rape and sexual assault cases should a victim choose to go to civilian law enforcement, but such cases are rare because the military prefers to prosecute its own personnel.
"If word gets out that the military justice system is not properly attentive to these cases, military personnel will vote with their feet," said Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School.
The House this week is expected to pass its own defense bill, which contains provisions to more harshly punish sex assault crimes in the military and make it difficult for commanders to overturn convictions.
The Senate bill is also expected to include measures that would provide victims of sexual assault with a special military lawyer and that would automatically remove convicted sex offenders from the military. Other expected provisions would require a commander to provide written justification for any decision commuting or lessening a sentence after a guilty verdict in a court-martial.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is in the meantime still holding up the nomination of Lt. Gen. Susan Helms of the Air Force to become vice commander of the U.S. Space Command because Helms overturned a jury conviction in a sexual assault case without public explanation.
Gillibrand may have a chance to renew her measure on the Senate floor later this summer, something she will almost certainly seek.