Amid some of the worst congressional partisan bickering in memory, New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand pulled off a remarkable political coup Tuesday morning: She brought together high-flying conservatives Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, as well as ultra-liberal Barbara Boxer, on the same podium to endorse her controversial bill to create a new prosecution system for major military crimes including rape and murder.
Gillibrand, a moderate freshman mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate, demonstrated her powers of persuasion by doggedly recruiting Paul of Kentucky, Cruz of Texas and Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, to embrace her legislation.
Those and other Republicans agreed to come on board despite opposition from the Pentagon, a Republican-dominated House and rival legislation drafted by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. And Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has triedto stamp out military sexual assaults without disrupting the military chain of command. In all, about 32 senators have signed on to the legislation so far, in what clearly will be an uphill battle.
Gillbrand held her news conference about an hour before the Senate began a showdown over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s threat of a “nuclear option.” That option would alter the Senate rules unless Republicans allowed seven of President Obama’s executive branch nominations to go through. In the first test of a yet-to-be-finalized agreement, the president’s nominee to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Richard Cordray, received preliminary clearance on a 71 to 29 procedural vote.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has threatened all-out partisan warfare if Reid makes good on his plan to demolish the filibuster as a tool for the minority in opposing objectionable nominations.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2016?
Paul, a prominent libertarian who quickly rose to prominence by leading a nearly 13-hour filibuster against the nomination of Obama’s new CIA director, and Cruz, a darling of the Tea party, both are considered to be likely combatants for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. They both said that – despite all the talk of partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill – substance sometimes trumps politics on Capitol Hill when it comes to important issues.
The two Republican freshmen hailed Gillibrand’s effort to better protect members of the military from sexual assaults and other criminal acts that frequently have been covered up or watered down by commanding officers.
“I really, truly don’t see things in partisan purpose – I really don’t see them that way,” Paul told reporters. “I’m more than willing to go against my party any time … We should go for what we think is right. This is an issue that I think is obviously right. It sounds like we’re all trying to get to a more just situation.”
Paul said that he was open to Gillibrand’s idea when she first approached him, but that she really closed the deal when she agreed to revise her bill along the lines he suggested. Cruz added that “I was really persuaded by the arguments Sen. Gillibrand presented at the Armed Services Committee” last month. “I think all of us, Republicans and Democrats, and I think also the commanders in the military, want to solve this problem.”
REMOVING MILITARY COMMANDERS
Gillibrand’s bill would remove military commanders from the decision to prosecute allegations of sexual assaults and other serious criminal acts within their units. Military leaders, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have said that such a move could undermine commanders' authority. the Armed Services Committee ALSO rejected the idea in June, in favor of Levin and McCaskill’s less drastic approach.
But Gillibrand, Boxer and others say military commanders cannot be counted on to objectively rule on criminal activities of subordinates. And they noted that time and again, defense secretaries and other military leaders have promised “zero tolerance” after sexual assault scandals have rocked the military, only to allow the problems to persist.
Gillibrand praised Paul and Cruz for joining forces with her, adding, “I think both of them are going to add deeply to this extraordinary issue that needs dramatic leadership and bold action.”
Democratic leaders have not yet decided when to bring the defense reauthorization bill to the floor for debate and amendments – including a vote on Gillbrand’s measure. While her amendment was rejected in committee, Gillibrand contends it will fare better with the full Senate because lawmakers not on the committee might not share some of the same allegiances with the Defense Department, according to Politico.
As the press conference was breaking up this morning, Gillibrand rushed over to hug Paul and Cruz, her newly won allies.