WASHINGTON (AP) — One by one, the women of the Senate stood up, speaking out about the scourge of sexual assault in the military and their collaborative effort to address the long-neglected issue.
First-term Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday it was an issue "that the women of the Senate have really, I think, driven," not necessarily a woman's issue, but one of justice and fairness.
With several female colleagues listening, four-term Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., hailed the record 20 women in the 100-member Senate, but insisted that history should not be limited to numbers. "Instead, it is what we do with our newfound strength to address the issues that are impacting women across the country," said Murray, the head of the Senate Budget Committee.
In speech after speech on the Senate floor, Republican and Democratic women — 10 of the 20 — focused on their unity in trying to force Congress to embrace sweeping changes to the decades-old military justice system as part of the annual defense policy bill.
They put aside their bitter differences over how to prosecute the alleged attackers, concentrating on the common ground of how to end the epidemic of sexual assault. The Pentagon estimates that 26,000 members of the military may have been sexually assaulted last year, though thousands were afraid to come forward.
Under the defense bill, commanders would be stripped of their ability to overturn jury convictions, any individual convicted of sexual assault would face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal, and a civilian review would be triggered when a decision is made not to prosecute a case.
The bill also would provide a special counsel for victims and eliminate the statute of limitations for courts-martial. Senate action on the bill is the culmination of months of work, largely led by the seven women who serve on the 26-member Armed Services Committee — a high-water mark for a panel that for decades was a male bastion.
"This is what the American people wanted, us working together," said five-term Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the senators were united by the need for serious reforms. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., spoke of the importance of addressing the crimes. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Washington state's Maria Cantwell and the newest members, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, delivered forceful speeches.
In a fractious Congress, the women have persuaded their colleagues to support the changes in a rare instance of bipartisanship. The women represented various stages of Senate experience, but all have displayed some willingness to compromise on certain issues.
On issues that divide them, they are lobbying hard. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Armed Services personnel subcommittee, wants to give victims of rape and sexual assault in the military an independent route outside the chain of command for prosecuting attackers.
Her solution would take the decision from commanders and give it to seasoned military lawyers. The top echelon of the military has opposed her plan and she has faced resistance from a number of Democrats and Republicans, including the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
She received the endorsement of the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Separate from the speeches, Gillibrand held a Capitol Hill news conference with victims, retired military and other senators to push for her proposal. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., announced his support, raising the number of backers for her plan to 50 senators.
He received a kiss from Gillibrand after his remarks and endorsement of her bill. She is likely, however, to face a 60-vote, filibuster-proof threshold this week on a proposal that has divided the Senate. In the meantime, she said she was calling or meeting with every undecided senator.
One of her opponents, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Armed Services Committee, said on the Senate floor that the dispute has been a distraction from the changes in the bill. "I would be less than candid if I didn't say it has been frustrating to have one policy difference dominate the discussion of this issue over the previous few weeks without anyone even realizing the historic reforms that are contained in this bill," McCaskill said.