© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

McCaskill prepares for likely final showdown over competing sexual assault proposals

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Within the next two weeks, Sen. Claire McCaskill expects a showdown on the military battle she’s been waging for months with fellow Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-NY.

At issue? How best to reform how the military handles sexual assaults.

McCaskill, D-Mo., is promoting a plan – backed by the Pentagon – which would curb commanders’ powers when it comes to such cases. They would retain control of court-martial proceedings, but could no longer overturn jury verdicts in sexual assault cases and couldn’t substitute dishonorable discharge or dismissal.

Gillibrand would remove commanders from the picture, and give military prosecutors the power to decide which sexual assault cases should be pursued.

McCaskill has touted her background as the former Jackson County prosecutor, where she handled many sex crimes, as she has argued that sexual assault cases need to remain within the chain of command.

The two senators – who both sit on the Armed Services Committee -- have been vigorously competing for support, and attracting national press attentionas a result.

“The premise of (Gillibrand’s) argument is a myth, that if we make this changes, that is the only way we will get these victims to come forward,.”  McCaskill told reporters Tuesday in a conference call.  Gillibrand, she said, has painted a portrait that “it’s victims versus commanders...The reality is much more complex than that.’’ 

McCaskill contended that military prosecutors often have been more reluctant than commanders to pursue sexual assault cases. “We are aware of dozens of cases…where prosecutors have declined to do these cases, and commanders have insisted they do these cases,” she said.

“In our reforms, we’re going to remove commanders’ capacity to abuse their power, and we’re going to put checks on their power, and we are going to keep them accountable for making a difference in this area,” McCaskill continued. “It’s hard to imagine that the commanders are going to be able to be held accountable if they can wash their hands of any responsibility. And that’s what her proposal would do.’’

McCaskill emphasized that some of her proposals are already in the defense authorization bill that will serve as the template for any sexual assault provisions. “Many of the reforms that I have advanced are already in the bill,” she said, noting that the panel rejected Gillibrand’s offerings.

“Blocking commanders “from altering the outcomes…Making retaliation a crime. All of these reforms are in the bill,” McCaskill said.

A few days ago, as part of her blitz, McCaskill  lauded the latest Pentagon statistics that show a 46 percent increase in reported military sexual assault cases so far this year. She argued that the numbers didn’t necessary show an increase in such crimes, but rather that more victims were gaining the courage to step forward.

“These numbers, while a comfort to no one, represent progress—and hopefully show that with new protections in place, and historic reforms on the way, victims will have the confidence to come forward, without us removing all accountability from commanders,” McCaskill said. “It also shows that a system that includes a role for commanders, and holds them accountable with historic reforms, will work for victims.”

On Tuesday, McCaskill acknowledged to reporters that she and Gillibrand will both face challenges in getting either amendment added to the defense bill on the Senate floor, since 60 votes would likely be required for either proposal to proceed.

McCaskill said she was prepared for “a procedural filibuster” that could kill off one or both proposals.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.