WASHINGTON – Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand may or may not win this week when the Senate finally votes on her legislation putting the prosecution of sexual assaults in the military in the hands of trained prosecutors rather than commanders.
But in a sense, she’s won no matter what.
Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who was appointed to office five years ago and who spent her first years in the Senate in the shadow of her predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, now finds her stature in the capital skyrocketing. And her relentless – and, to some, overbearing – effort to win passage of her military sexual assault bill is one big reason for it.
“Quite frankly, how she has handled this is a lesson to go forward on how to accomplish great things,” Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, one of nine Republican senators who are supporting her effort, said at a news conference on the issue.
What’s more, Gillibrand’s high-profile stance has led some to suspect she may one day move on to much greater things.
If Clinton – the overwhelming early favorite for the Democratic nomination – were for some reason to pass on a 2016 race for president, “Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand would be a strong contender,” Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, founder of the popular liberal blog Daily Kos, wrote last year.
For her part, Gillibrand dismisses any such talk.
“It’s not an ambition,” she says. “It’s not something I aspire to, and I hope that Hillary does run because I want her to win and I’m going to help her win.”
Gillibrand’s immediate ambition, though, is to win passage of her bill removing prosecutorial decisions from the chain of command when sexual assaults occur in the military.
To Gillibrand and the 52 of her Senate colleagues who publicly support the measure, doing that is just common sense.
They say the statistics show that the current system, in which troops must report assaults directly to a commanding officer, is failing. After all, the Pentagon estimated that 26,000 sexual assaults occurred in the military in 2012, but only 3,374 were reported.
Those statistics indicate that victims are afraid to report such crimes to their commanders, said Gillibrand, who dismisses the vow of military leaders who say they have “zero tolerance” for sexual assault within the ranks.
“If there was any other mission where the military said zero tolerance and failed poorly as they have in this instance, we would have deep, deep concerns,” she said.
In an interview in her office last week, Gillibrand said she felt compelled to take the issue on after a friend recommended that she see a 2012 documentary about it called “The Invisible War.”
“When I watched that film, I was gripped with anger and disgust and determination that I was going to do something about it,” she said. “I was so offended by what happened to these brave men and women who would literally risk their lives for the country and then not only have to suffer through the horror of rape, but then be told, either by their commanding officer or by someone within chain of command, that nothing would be done for them, that there was no justice for them.”
Not long after seeing the film, Gillibrand found herself with the perfect platform on which to raise the issue, as she was appointed to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Personnel. So after showing her senior staff “The Invisible War,” she went to work drafting her bill and raising awareness on the issue.
At a hearing last May, Gillibrand put victims of sexual assault front and center for the first time.
And then behind the scenes, she started lining up support for the bill, persistently buttonholing her colleagues on the Senate floor and working to resolve any concerns they might have.
For example, after Sen. Rand Paul – a tea party Republican from Kentucky – voiced worries that the bill was so broadly worded that it could remove commanders from the prosecution of AWOL soldiers, Gillibrand agreed to change the wording.
Before long, both Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, signaled their support for Gillibrand’s bill.
“I think this is a great example of how people from both sides come together and are willing to work on a problem and look honestly at, you know, what the problem is,” Paul said at the time.
Gillibrand said she now has 53 senators lined up in support of her measure – and predicts that she’ll reach the filibuster-proof number of 60 votes if need be when the Senate considers the bill this week.
Yet she faces stiff and determined opposition from the Pentagon.
“Reducing command responsibility could adversely affect the ability of the commander to enforce professional standards and, ultimately, to accomplish the mission,” Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Senate hearing last year.
Even supporters of the military acknowledge that there’s a problem within the ranks, and they suggest changing it by adopting a narrower reform proposal put forth by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who last week announced that an independent panel had studied Gillibrand’s alternative and deemed it unworthy.
“After an exhaustive and careful study of the issue, these independent and diverse experts have reached an unequivocal conclusion: stripping commanders of their ability to launch courts-martial in sexual assault cases would not result in more prosecutions of predators or more protections for victims,” said McCaskill, a former federal prosecutor.
Younger veterans tend to say, though, that Gillibrand’s approach is the right one.
“We’ve got Sen Gillibrand’s back on this,” said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “I represent this new generation, which is much more diverse and has, I think, a different understanding and approach to the role of women in the military … So across our generation, we’ve seen an understanding and an urgency on this issue.”
At the same time, though, Gillibrand’s fierce fight for her bill has angered some of her colleagues.
A Democratic Senate aide griped that some suspect Gillibrand has even asked her campaign donors to pressure senators on the issue. And Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told the New York Daily News last year that Gillibrand may have ulterior motives.
“You can go too far in this business,” Graham said at the time. “She’s really passionate. But now it’s almost like a political prize. It’s becoming a résumé-building exercise, is what I worry about.”
Asked about those comments, Gillibrand said she and Graham have already patched up their differences.
“He was angry,” she said. “We get along very well. He’s just very nervous about this reform.”
Still, Graham’s comments play into a criticism that has dogged Gillibrand since her early days in the House back in 2007: that she’s relentlessly, and annoyingly, ambitious.
Her work on the veterans issue, along with her decision to build a nationwide fundraising network that’s now one of the strongest in Washington, have fed into perceptions that Gillibrand may ultimately aim far higher than the Senate.
And Emily’s List – which works to elect Democratic abortion rights supporters to office – only fed into that perception when it published a list of “Women We’re Watching” as potential presidents. Clinton, predictably, topped the list – but Gillibrand was listed second.
“It’s extremely flattering” to be viewed in that way, Gillibrand said. “But I really enjoy serving in the Senate. I really feel like I have a place here to make a difference.”
Even her opponents acknowledge that.
“Without her persistence and passion, we would not be here today,” Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who opposes Gillibrand’s proposal, said on the Senate floor when the Senate debated the issue last fall. “She perhaps has done more than anyone else to focus our attention on this incredibly heinous crime.”