A Senate debate surrounding the Pentagon's funding bill is expected to catapult a host of controversial issues into the spotlight this week, most notably the epidemic of military sexual assault.
Before senators can return home for the holidays, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is planning on plowing through a host of contentious topics including the National Security Administration's spying program, the continued operation of the Guantanamo Bay detention center and sanctions against Iran, en route to passing the $625 billion National Defense Authorization Act.
The NDAA bill passed easily out of the Senate Armed Services Committee in June, but will provide a major test for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who is leading the charge for major reform that would take the prosecution of military assaults out of the chain of command.
Gillibrand's bill would take the decisions about prosecuting military sexual assaults and other serious crimes out of the hands of military commanders and place the power in the hands of special prosecutors. So far Gillibrand is 14 votes short of the 60 she needs to overcome a likely procedural hurdle, but the junior Democrat from New York has surprised many with her ability to rally votes. Gillibrand has managed to attract a politically diverse coalition of supporters including staunch conservatives Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Military sexual assault gained an increasing amount of attention in the Senate after the Pentagon announced in May that the number of assaults rose beyond 26,000 in 2012.
"The core common value that we all share is that we want to end sexual assault in the military and we all agree to do that you need transparency and accountability and objectivity," Gillibrand told Whispers Thursday. "That's what we don't have today and that's why taking this one decision out of the chain of command can bring that justice to a victim because she has a shot, a fair shot, at an objective review, not by a commander who's biased, who may know the perpetrator, may know the victim and may have a reason to put the whole thing under the rug."
Gillibrand's amendment is counter to that of Sen. Claire McCaskill's, D-Mo., attempt at reform, which would block military commanders from overturning sexual assault convictions, but would not take sexual assaults out of the chain of command.
McCaskill argues Gillibrand's bill doesn't yield solutions. In countries where the military has removed sexual assault prosecutions from the chain of command, the number of reported sexual assaults has not increased.
"I'm determined to make sure that any policy I'm fighting for is well-grounded in solutions that will responsibly address this epidemic, and that means facts and data have to matter. The fact remains that stripping commanders of their responsibilities will not increase reporting, but we do know that doing so would reduce prosecutions and leave victims more susceptible to retaliation," McCaskill said in a statement.
The Senate is also expected to put NSA spying programs under the microscope. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has urged his colleagues to take that fight elsewhere in order to ensure the debate surrounding controversial issues doesn't bog down the Senate's ability to finish the defense funding bill before Thanksgiving. But some senators are pushing for amendments that could dramatically curb the NSA's ability to collect mass amounts of data on Americans.
The House of Representatives nearly passed its own amendment in July that would have severely limited the NSA's ability to collect data. Some in the Senate are aiming to reignite that debate.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced legislation putting a stop to the NSA's ability to collect phone metadata in mass. And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has a bill that would provide greater oversight on the NSA.