Claire McCaskill Forges Ahead on Military Sexual Assault Prosecutions, Despite Skeptics

McCaskill to see her historic reforms adopted, but at a steep price.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. on June 4, 2013, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military.
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Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is on a mission to slash the number of unprosecuted military sexual assaults that occur each year. This week that crusade may pay off, as the Senate is on track to pass many of her unprecedented reforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

[READ: Military Sexual Assault Bill Dominates Defense Authorization]

McCaskill's looming victory, however, hasn't come easy.

Her approach to stamp out sex crimes in the military isn't as radical as many victims and advocacy groups have lobbied for, putting the formerly revered victim's advocate in the crosshairs of harsh attacks. Under McCaskill's reform, military commanders would be barred from overturning convictions. But the plan is not nearly as drastic as that of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who would take the decisions about prosecuting military sexual assaults and other serious crimes out of the military chain of command and place them in the hands of special prosecutors.

McCaskill's unflinching defense of her reforms has left her isolated from many of her Democratic colleagues who have flocked to support Gillibrand's bill. Even Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has sided with Gillibrand.

Worse, advocates have scoffed at her approach, labeling her as anti-victim. In July, the group Protect Our Defenders, which lobbies for stronger protections for victims, issued a letter against McCaskill in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch with the headline "Sen. McCaskill: Please reconsider and stand with me, a military rape survivor."

Gillibrand, who has attracted gobs of media attention for her efforts, embraces the throngs of reporters approaching her as she moves through the corridors of Capitol Hill. McCaskill, on the other hand, wears an expression of fortitude as she more cunningly navigates around them. Gillibrand gives a rundown of the support she's attracting; McCaskill simply says she'll win.

"She won't prevail and mine will prevail," McCaskill said about the dueling proposals Wednesday as she entered a crowded elevator.

[ALSO: Gillibrand Takes on Senior Senators on Military Sexual Assault]

McCaskill, a top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, took a general to task during a hearing earlier this year after another commander overturned Col. James Wilkerson's rape conviction. Now she's facing notoriety, not as a victim advocate, but as an adversary. Her work to get reforms into the Pentagon's funding bill in the first place were ignored.

It has been a jarring experience for McCaskill who was the first woman elected to be a prosecutor in Jackson County, Mo., where she earned a reputation for being a fierce defender against perpetrators of sex crimes.

"It's painful, but I am comforted by the fact that my experience tells me that we are getting the policy right," McCaskill told U.S. News in an interview. "Ultimately this isn't about how I feel or how I am being painted, it is about how we help the victims."

Gillibrand strenuously defends her position, arguing the stories she has heard tell her everything she needs to know about the pervasive problem within the chain of command. Of the estimated 26,000 military sexual assaults estimated that occured in 2012, 3,000 were reported, fewer than 500 were brought to trial and 200 resulted in a conviction. Gillibrand says commanders cannot be trusted to protect victims.

McCaskill, meanwhile, argues there is no evidence that removing military sexual assaults from the chain of command yields more convictions. The Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel, a Defense Department board that studies how rapes are prosecuted, testified in November countries that removed sexual assault from the chain of command typically increased the rights of the perpetrators not the victims.

Before the fight over military sexual assault boiled over, advocacy groups lauded McCaskill for her efforts to curb sexual violence within them military. In April, the Service Women's Action Network awarded McCaskill with a plaque reading "Senator Claire 'Mad Dog' McCaskill Truth and Justice: The 2013 Summit on Military Sexual Violence." Today, they are advocating for Gillibrand's bill.