Gillibrand Versus McCaskill and Levin: The War to Solve Military Sexual Assaults Heats Up

War against sexual assault heats up, as senators prepare for recess.

(Left) Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., on Capitol Hill on July 16, 2013. (Center) Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., on Capitol Hill on July 25, 2013. (Far right) Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., on Capitol Hill on May 21, 2013.
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The war to combat military sexual assault isn't dissipating on Capitol Hill as lawmakers prepare for a month-long recess. If anything, it's just getting started.

Party lines are blurring, the Senate Armed Services Committee is divided, and the Pentagon is digging in to preserve its chain of command.

The upheaval is about Armed Services committee member Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's, D-N.Y., proposal to remove violent crimes like sexual assault from the command hierarchy. Commanders are in control of deciding what court cases get prosecuted, but under her legislation, decisions to prosecute those crimes would fall to a military prosecutor.

[READ: DOD: Military Sexual Assault Investigations Are Inefficient]

Gillibrand's bill could be brought to the floor as early as September as an amendment to the National Defense Reauthorization Act.

Gillibrand argues the stories she has heard from survivors and the numbers tell her everything she needs to know about the scope of the problem. Of the 26,000 sexual assaults estimated in 2012 to have occurred in the military, 3,000 were reported, fewer than 500 were brought to trial and 200 resulted in a conviction.

"Survivors don't have faith in the system," says Greg Jacob, the policy director for the Service Women's Action Network. "It does no good to keep this authority in the hands of commanders if they are not going to use the authority properly."

Gillibrand is a force on the issue and has grabbed headlines with her ability to bring together a broad cross section of the Senate, Democrats and Republicans. Each week it seems support for her bill is growing. This week, the tally is up to 44 lawmakers who stand behind her bill from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., are on the other side of the debate. They have their own proposal to provide more oversight to ensure commanders are not abusing their authority, but they advocate that keeping commanders in charge of bringing sexual assault cases forward for prosecution is necessary to maintain order within the military's ranks.

[RELATED: Military Sexual Assault Bills Get Their Day on Capitol Hill]

"Commanders are telling us we will weaken our authority if you take this out of the chain of command," Levin says.

Monday, during a breakfast with reporters, Gen. Herbert Carlisle, chief of Pacific Air Forces called sexual assault a "cancer" that "we must get after." But he, too, cautioned against lawmakers backing a plan to remove the crime's prosecution from the chain of command.

"There is a vested interest in the chain of command to fix things and if you have an impartial person from the outside, I don't see them being better at fixing the problem," Carlisle says. "The chain of command wants to fix their problem. They have to for the well being of their force."

McCaskill and Gillibrand have hosted a series of competing pressers and dispersed numerous fact sheets, with both sides working to define the narrative in their favor.

McCaskill has even found herself a target of an ad campaign alleging the former sex crimes prosecutor wasn't standing up for the rights of military sexual assault survivors.

[ALSO: San Diego Mayor Sued for Sexual Harassment]

Protect Our Defenders, a military group, took out ads in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and attacked the lawmaker on Facebook.

Inside the Capitol, however, McCaskill and Gillibrand say while they fundamentally disagree on the best way to fix the sexual assault epidemic in the military, they both agree it must stop.

"Senators Gillibrand and McCaskill have been working closely together on a number of reforms to combat the epidemic of sexual assault in the military," Gillibrand's spokeswoman Bethany Lesser said in a statement last week. "While they may not agree on every reform, they share the same goals."

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