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Kirsten Gillibrand gains some GOP support on bill to combat sexual assault in military

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand reintroduced legislation, with some key Republican backers, this week to combat sexual assault within the military.

Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Rand Paul of Kentucky are among a host of co-signers to the New York Democrat’s push for the Military Justice Improvement Act that seeks to change how the military prosecutes “serious crimes,” including sexual assault.

At its core, the legislation that has languished after prior introductions in recent years calls for the assignment of an independent, trained prosecutor to oversee such cases.

Ms. Gillibrand, who has sought to rally bipartisan support anew for the bill, said in a statement Thursday that military leaders have “failed” at their promise for zero-tolerance regarding sexual assault.

Top Pentagon officers have been grilled by lawmakers several times over the past year about the issue of sexual assault within the military.



“The Department of Defense has tried incremental reforms, but they clearly haven’t worked,” said Ms. Gillibrand, who serves as ranking member of the Senate Armed Service Committee’s personnel subpanel. “It’s long past time for Congress to step up and create accountability where the DoD has failed.”

She went on to cite a recent Defense Department study from the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, which found there were 20,500 incidences of sexual assault since the last report was conducted in 2016, but a decline in the number of cases sent to trial over the same period.

Mr. Cruz, who joined Ms. Gillibrand in issuing Thursday’s statement, said that “decades of experience have shown that, under the status quo, far too many victims of assault are reluctant to come forward because they fear their attackers will not be prosecuted.”

Some Republican lawmakers, however, argue that the legislation would limit the role of commanders and prosecutors who would oversee the case.

The latest legislation is the second bill introduced this week that aims at changing the way sexual assault cases are handled within the military.

The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday voted to establish a pilot program to change the sexual assault prosecution system at U.S. military academies.

The amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, introduced by California Democrat Rep. Jackie Speier, is intended to allow victims in the ranks to report sexual assault “without fear or receipt of discipline” if they were in possession of alcohol, accused of consensual fraternization, or seen in an off-limits area.

The existing policy does not protect victims if they are in violation of these circumstances, a primary reason Ms. Speier cited as to why many victims do not report sexual assault.

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