By Darren Samuelsohn and Anna Palmer
A House leadership aide said that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has been working the issue behind the scenes, meeting several times with lawmakers leading on the issue, including Reps. Jackie Speier (Calif.), Susan Davis (Calif.) and Adam Smith (Wash.) among others to encourage their efforts to address the issue.
Pelosi has also been coordinating with Rep. Donna Edwards (Md.), chair of the Democratic Women's Working Group, to organize women members to go down to the floor to speak during the rule on NDAA Wednesday to make their voices heard on the severity of sexual assaults in the military and demand a strong legislative solution.
Across the Capitol, Speier is running out of options in her mirror bid to bring in new legal prosecutors outside the Pentagon's chain of command when dealing with sexual assaults. House Republicans ruled late Wednesday that her amendment, which had support of 130-plus cosponsors, couldn't be debated on the floor. But a handful of other less aggressive options are on the agenda for votes Thursday when the House considers its version of the Defense authorization bill.
Speier has been working the issue for the past three years and is among the most vocal proponent of taking the violations out of the military chain of command.
"We have to have the debate," Speier said. "Our fix is to leave it in the military chain of command. Other industrialized countries have recognized that's not the way to do it."
The California Democrat said there are 132 co-sponsors for her amendment, more than any others, but since her amendment was voted out of order her path forward is unclear.
"Maybe I should blame myself for not being a bigger thorn in their side, I don't know," Speier said Wednesday.
A number of other sexual assault amendments will be debated, including a measure by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) that would require posting information relating to sexual assault prevention and response resources. Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) is also pushing a provision that would make it a new offense for an officer to abuse their position in the chain of command of a subordinate to rape or sexually assault that person, and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) is sponsoring an amendment that would require service education to include sexual assault prevention in its ethics curriculum.
Language pushed by Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) appears to have a good shot at making it into law. The bi-partisan duo's bill -- already inserted into the House's Defense bill during the committee stage -- would not allow military officials to be able to change or dismiss court-martial convictions for sexual assault. It also requires service members found guilty of sexual assault or other sex-related offenses to receive punishment, including at a minimum, dismissal or dishonorable discharge.
"What we have in this bill is the best answer for addressing the issue of eliminating bias from commanders and restricting those in the chain of command from affecting the outcome of sexual assault cases," Turner said. "We want vigorous prosecution. We want to change the culture -- instead of victims feeling insecure, perpetrators feel insecure."
Udall said in an interview he came into the markup "leaning toward supporting Sen. GIllibrand, but I wanted to hear people who I respect discuss why they thought the chairman's amendment made sense."
"I listened carefully and made my mind up" just before the final vote, he said, adding, "That was one of the most thoughtful and substantive discussions I've ever experienced in the Senate."
Udall said he welcomed Levin's alternative approach that will still keep commanding officers in the mix. "I just think Sen. Gillibrand approach has the potential to move us more quickly to the goals we want to meet," he said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who isn't on the Armed Services Committee but backs Gillibrand's bill, said she may have more luck before the full Senate.
"I know her as a person not to give up," Grassley said. "We're going to face this and I'm going to help her."
Asked why she's faced so much resistance, the Iowa Republican replied, "It's this simple. Around Congress, the Pentagon has got great power and that's about it. I've been working to straighten things out in the Pentagon for 30 years so I know what it is. There's great respect for people who have stars on their shoulders and they don't like it."
A senior Senate GOP aide said Gillibrand willlikely find more friendly terrain as she pushes her amendment before the entire chamber. "Things can still change, absolutely," the aide said.
Gillibrand, meantime, said she's going to work toward winning a simple Senate majority. "I think it has a chance of passing," she told reporters. "I think if we keep working hard to get the votes we need, we could get to 51."
Senate women split
While the Senate's record number of women are all pushing to address sexual assault issues, Gillibrand hasn't won over all of them.
Perhaps the biggest splinter came with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a former county prosecutor who called the debate over the chain of command a distraction from the real issues.
"I honestly do not believe that the chain of command at the disposition phase is our main problem," she said. "Our main problem is the military doesn't even know how many rapes and sodomies they have. They have no idea."
McCaskill said the Pentagon doesn't keep accurate data differentiating between different categories of unwanted sexual contact. And it lacks the resources to conduct thorough investigations and needs a new database to track sex offenders.
"What a better place to be a roving predator than a military that moves you all the time, from country to country to base to base," she said. "If we don't get a handle on tracking these predators in a more aggressive way, we'll never accomplish this mission."
While praising Gillibrand's leadership, McCaskill said the two Democrats have "an honest disagreement on how best to accomplish our shared goal of putting predators in prison and supporting victims during the most difficult moments of their lives."
She also praised Levin's approach, which sends all decisions not to prosecute a sexual assault case to the next commander up in the chain and gives each branch's civilian service secretary the final say if a military lawyer recommends a case to be prosecuted but the commander disagrees.
"Frankly that goes further than I've dreamt we'd be able to go," she said.
Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Deb Fisher (Neb.) also sided with Levin against Gillibrand's chain-of-command bill.
Gillibrand's bill had no shot at winning defense hawks. But it's notable that Levin won over every other senator on his panel, including ranking member Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and several others who have strong connections with the Defense Department.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) recalled the military's experiences dealing with racial tension during Vietnam.
"We didn't solve the problem by taking away the responsibility from the commanding officers," he said. "What we did was place additional responsibilities and embarked on a very, very vigorous program of indoctrination, of instruction, of explaining to the men and women of the military what was acceptable and what was not. And those who violated thoseregulations concerning the practice of racism were punished with the utmostseverity and rapidity."
Of Levin's alternative, McCain added, "I think we've come up with a legislative proposal that should be extremely effective."
South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said Levin's approach would get results through the addition of language bumping assault cases to the secretary of the service if there's a conflict between the lawyer and unit commander.
"I can't think of a more chilling statement to make and empowering a lawyer more than having the commander's decision reviewed by the secretary of the service in question. That's a huge dramatic step in the right direction that stays within the chain of command," he said.
But Levin's supporters signaled they have only so much patience. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said he would vote with the Michigan Democrat but noted it was a "tough and close call."
"I think this is a very comprehensive and far reaching and strong proposal. But if it doesn't work, if we don't see an improvement, if we don't see higher levels of reporting and a changing of culture, then I think this committee is going to have very little option but to change fundamentally the way these matters are handled," King said. "I see this as a last chance for the chain of command to get it right."
Leadership hanging back
Reid and his counterpart in the House, Speaker John Boehner, both reacted with outrage as the increased number of military sexual assaults was publicly released.
"The situation of sexual exploitation in the armed services is beyond the pale," Reid told reporters earlier this month.
Boehner called it a "national disgrace."
Since then, though, neither has taken a lead role in pushing specific legislation that would create a new system for dealing with the assaults. Both have publicly signaled they will let the legislative process unfold without picking favorites.
"Sen. Reid believes very strongly that this is a crisis and it must be addressed aggressively and promptly," Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said in an email Wednesday to POLITICO. "The Defense authorization bill will include a number of important steps, and it will offer an opportunity for a full debate on Senator Gillibrand's bill, along with other proposals."