J. Scott Applewhite/AP

McCaskill Makes It Personal in Battle Over Military Assaults

Sen. McCaskill says her more moderate bill is better, but she's losing the public battle to Gillibrand. "I'll give that to her." By Stacy Kaper

The fight over legislation to combat military sexual assaults is getting more tense.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the No. 4 Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has long been a leader on sexual assault issues, said she is frustrated that reforms she has championed have not gotten more credit. And she appears miffed about the attention rival Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is getting.

"I'm frustrated that the reforms that we have done have not gotten the attention they deserve because they are amazing and it's going to make a huge difference," McCaskill said Thursday. "I'm not sure that I've done so well at the public relations on this; I'll give that to her," she said of Gillibrand.

McCaskill's comments came at a press conference where she was joined by two other women on the Armed Services Committee, Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Deb Fischer, R-Neb., in criticizing the Gillibrand proposal and promoting more moderate reforms.

Gillibrand is pursuing an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would radically reform the military justice system by taking the decision of whether to prosecute military sexual assaults out of the chain of command.

Gillibrand's bill is favored by victim advocacy organizations and is adamantly opposed by the Pentagon and Armed Services leaders on both sides of the aisle.

(Read more: Why Taking Sexual Assault Cases Out of the Chain of Command Protects Our Troops)

But one of Gillibrand's most damning opponents might be McCaskill. The first female senator from Missouri is a former courtroom prosecutor who specialized in sex crimes, helped establish her state's first domestic/sexual violence unit, is more senior on Armed Services, and is coming out swinging hard against a fellow Democrat.

"Sometimes it's not easy to do what you think is right on the policy when the politics are hard," said McCaskill, flanked by Ayotte and Fischer. "I'm very proud of my colleagues to have the courage to stand here on policy and substance as opposed to, I think, the easier path of deciding this is a winner-and-loser argument, with women on one side and men on the other. That does this issue and victims a great disservice."

For her part, Gillibrand said that she and McCaskill probably agree on 11 out of 12 reforms and that she respects her work.

"It is not personal for me," she said. "Senator McCaskill has spent months on this issue. She cares deeply. We just disagree on this one issue. And I'm fighting for it because I think it will make the difference ... in more reporting, more cases going to trial, and more convictions."

McCaskill's press conference came the day after Gillibrand announced she is considering changing her bill to limit its proposed prosecution system to only sexual assaults and rape. That would narrow it from covering all major crimes considered a felony in the civil justice system, as it is currently structured.

McCaskill took blatant swipes at Gillibrand's approach Thursday.

"I will say that the goalposts keep moving," she said.

"For us it's about the policy and it's not as much about vote-counting. We are not changing our provisions to try to figure out ways to get more votes. We are trying to stay focused on what's best for victims," she said.

McCaskill argued that because commanders would be stripped of the decision to prosecute in Gillibrand's bill, the measure would fail to hold them accountable.

"We just had a fundamental policy difference on whether or not it was going to help victims more to hold the commander accountable or to allow them to walk away," she said.

McCaskill's temper flared hot on this issue in July when Protect Our Defenders, a victim advocacy group, ran an ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, calling her an obstacle to reform, which she called "unfair."

Greg Jacob, the policy director with the Service Women's Action Network, said he wonders if that caused McCaskill to feel the need to reassert herself as a leader on the issue.

"I don't know if there have been conversations going on and McCaskill feels she has to kind of dig her heels in and reaffirm that she is a leader and advocate on this, because the record clearly shows that she has been quite effective and very, very good.... She's still a player here, so I don't know what kind of stuff is going on that would make her feel that way," Jacob said.

He added that both McCaskill and Gillibrand have considerable influence. McCaskill has a history working on these issues; Gillibrand is the chairwoman of the Personnel Subcommittee with jurisdiction, and she has launched a massive campaign to talk to every senator she can to support her bill.

"Whether or not one has more juice than the other in the committee--that is the dynamic," he said.

The measures that McCaskill wants more credit for in the defense bill had wide support, including from Gillibrand. They would take away commanders' ability to overturn convictions and provide a special counsel to provide independent legal advice to victims. The amendment McCaskill wants to add to the bill would allow sexual assault victims to challenge unfair discharges and would add additional checks to commanders' prosecution decisions. It is cosponsored by Ayotte and Fischer and has the support of Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. McCaskill said she expects uniform support across the Senate and would be "stunned" if Gillibrand did not also support it.