PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Fifteen times over the last month, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has gone to the Senate floor to demand an immediate vote on her Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act.
The New York senator’s request has been blocked each time — usually by Rhode Island’s Jack Reed, her fellow Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Gillibrand’s efforts have thrust the usually low-key Reed into an uncomfortable spotlight, making him the face of resistance to a measure billed as cracking down on sexual assault, one that boasts more than 60 Democratic and Republican cosponsors.
“The Two Men Blocking Military Sexual Assault Reform,” ran the headline on a New York Times editorial last month which chastised both Reed and his Republican counterpart on the Armed Services Committee, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.
In an interview Monday, Reed shrugged off a question about the fairness of one senator blocking legislation supported by a supermajority in the chamber. “It is the rules of the Senate,” he told 12 News.
Reed is bucking a broad cross-section of his colleagues who have signed on as Gillibrand’s cosponsors, ranging ideologically from Bernie Sanders on the left to Ted Cruz on the right. The list includes every New England senator except for the pair who represent Rhode Island, Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse.
“Measures that have strong support in the United States Senate don’t sometimes turn out to be the best,” Reed said. “I think there were about 78 senators who supported the invasion of Iraq in 2002. I opposed it. … Simply having a long list of cosponsors is a factor, but the real factor is getting into the details of the bill.”
The fifth-term senator and his allies, including top Pentagon brass, suggest Gillibrand’s current bill is too sweeping because it would transfer decisions about the legal proceedings for all felonies — not just sex crimes — from commanding officers to independent prosecutors.
“She would like to move crimes like barracks larceny, theft, that have no connection to sexual assault,” he said. “That, I think, gives the military some pause.”
Reed also insists the debate should be resolved in the Armed Services Committee, not go straight to a floor vote, in part to sort through the logistics to implement whatever changes are made.
“Frankly, without those types of details, we could pass something with good intentions but it just wouldn’t work,” he said.
Gillibrand shows no patience for Reed’s arguments, citing her own experience after a decade as a member of the Armed Services Committee.
She says committee leaders and Pentagon officials alike have dragged their feet on tackling sexual assault, and she fears that even if changes are included in the Senate’s annual military policy bill — known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA — they could get removed behind closed doors later in the process by members of a House-Senate conference committee.
“The committee has had eight years to debate, discuss, have hearings, and pass legislation,” Gillibrand said on the Senate floor earlier this month, adding, “They have failed to improve sexual assaults in the military, and it is now time for an up-or-down vote.”
Gillibrand also defends the fact that her bill encompasses all felonies, not just sex crimes.
“If you remove only one crime from the commander, you will essentially create an entirely different system just for survivors of sexual assault, who are more often to be women,” she said. “And experts have said that it will further marginalize them, it will further diminish them, it will further alienate them. It will be a special court for women, or a ‘pink court.'”
Reed sees it differently.
“It’s the experience of many over many years — including [Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin, who was a combat veteran and a four-star general — that these other felonies could be treated more effectively and more efficiently by the chain of command, which they have for many, many years,” he said.
The dispute is in part about the longstanding culture of the Armed Services Committee. Its top Democrats and Republicans have long prided themselves on acting in a spirit of bipartisanship, with the chairman and ranking member working collaboratively regardless of which party is in the majority.
Reed became the panel’s chairman in January when Democrats won control of the Senate, and he has a close relationship with Inhofe, his Republican counterpart — who opposes even moving prosecutions for sexual assault, let alone for all felonies, outside the chain of command.
Reed himself came out in favor of the change for sex crimes only on May 23 — the day before Gillibrand first went to the Senate floor seeking an immediate vote on her bill.
In the course of announcing Reed’s new position on the issue, his office also distributed a statement from Inhofe in which the Republican praised “Chairman Reed’s commitment to ensuring this issue is debated and voted on during the full committee markup of the NDAA.”
Reed said Monday he is confident the rules for sexual assault prosecutions will be reformed, saying the issue will “absolutely” be tackled as part of the soon-to-be-drafted NDAA. He pointed out that the defense secretary is among those who now support changes.
“When you have the secretary of defense [saying], ‘I want it,’ and you have, presumably, strong majorities in the House and Senate that want it, then it usually gets done,” he said.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram