J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Sen. Gillibrand Is Still Optimistic on Military Sexual Assault Reform

Sen. Gillibrand is looking longer-term, hoping to build off her first try to gather support for a future attempt to take the chain of command out of military sexual assault cases. By Stacy Kaper

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has long projected optimism in her long-shot crusade to overhaul the military's system for addressing sexual assault. But optimism can't change a whip count, and now the New York Democrat is conceding that the initial vote on her bill is unlikely to be successful.

Instead, Gillibrand is looking longer-term, hoping to build off her first try to gather support for a future attempt.

"I think we just hold the vote, get as close to 60 as we can, maybe reach 60, and then go from there," Gillibrand said in an exclusive interview Wednesday. "It's a longer debate and it may take longer than this next vote. But I think the fact that we've had the time to really think through what will this reform actually look like is extremely meaningful."

Gillibrand said she still expects her bill—which would remove from the chain of command the decision of whether to prosecute sexual assaults and other serious crimes—will hit the floor in the first half of February.

But prospects of victory are looking increasingly slim. Gillibrand has 53 supporters lined up, and National Journal reported Monday that the roster of persuadable lawmakers is shrinking; only eight of 25 targets are still considered undecided and all but one are Republicans.

(Read Sen. Gillibrand's proposals here) 

Gillibrand's bid was always a long shot, and she noted that even if she managed to work it through the Senate, she would still face stiff opposition in the House.

Her strategy would be to try to build an overwhelming number of cosponsors to compel House Republican leadership to act—a tall order.

"If we do reach 60, then we have to start talking to the House and making sure we can find 218 signatures of people who support this reform, and then we would allow our bill to go over to the House," she said. "But we want to show that support as a way to encourage Speaker [John] Boehner to allow for a vote on the House side."

First, though, Gillibrand needs to navigate the Senate process, which she admits will not be easy.

Gillibrand is expecting a 60-vote threshold. Her best-case scenario would be that she can manage to find a way to deliver 60 votes for cloture to proceed to the bill, and then pass the bill by a simple majority.

Although she calls that approach "standard," it would require agreements and time considerations that she acknowledges she might be able to secure.

"That may require consent given all the time that would be allotted to do it in the full process. So if we need 60 votes still, we will work with 60 votes. Our goal is to really earn 60 votes for this measure because I think it is the kind of reform that is really necessary. It's a long-term structural reform about how we create transparency and accountability within the military for all serious crimes."

In the meantime, Gillibrand is working to bring in sympathetic generals to meet with uncommitted lawmakers to try to help persuade them to vote yes ahead of the vote. She is also employing an additional argument that is designed to knock down opponents' arguments that commanders need to maintain power to decide prosecutions in order to manage their troops.

"There was almost a 20-year period where commanders didn't have this authority to decide which cases go to trial for nonmilitary crimes, from about 1969 to 1987 when the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional," she said. "So during that time period commanders didn't have this authority, but they still were able to manage their troops' good order and discipline, do their jobs of commanding and training to fine effect."

Gillibrand also points to reforms in the National Defense Authorization Act, which was just signed into law last month, that she helped push forward, but insists more changes are necessary.

"They are all good first steps forward," she said. "Just unfortunately they don't address the one thing that victims have asked for which is to have the decision point taken out of the chain of command because too many people didn't report the crimes because they feared the commanders would do nothing or they feared retaliation."