politico – Military sexual assault reform stalled as Democrats push for racial justice from the ranks

But the push by Brown and others led to a furious escalation behind the scenes by Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who strongly opposed the change, according to several people familiar with the talks. In some cases, Austin has telephoned Democrats privately to object.

Democratic split over overhaul is making it difficult for what many Democrats see as one of their rare opportunities to enact criminal justice reforms this Congress, especially with bipartisan police reform talks stalled . Powerful groups, such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, supported the bill, but some Democrats with a national security background or a strong military presence in their districts did not support it.

With several of its members undecided, House Armed Services Speaker Adam Smith (D-Wash.) Has delayed consideration of the high-profile bill, which was scheduled for Thursday, according to committee advisers.

Smith said Democrats agree that a major change is needed in the military justice system, but whether the changes are only needed for sex crimes or should extend to all crimes remains to be debated. Lawmakers, he said, “were not 100% clear” about the differences between the competing proposals.

When the Pentagon handed lawmakers a report on military sexual assault and said, ” We recommend removing it for all sex crimes, ‘they were like,’ Oh yeah, I love it, ‘”said Smith at POLITICO. “And then when someone said, ‘We’re going to pull it off for all crimes’, [they said,] “We like it too. ”

Smith said Democrats “didn’t understand” that this was a “binary choice.” He wants a clear explanation of the recommendation of the independent review board versus the proposal to remove military authority over all serious crimes “and then we’ll choose one or the other.”

While still undecided on the way forward, Smith said he is “leaning forward” to support the broader change that removes all serious crime from the chain of command.

“It’s really complicated, but it’s actually the simplest and cleanest approach,” he said.

Representative Andy Kim (DN.J.), who is among Democrats still speaking out on serious crime, said he was seeking answers to some logistical questions but did not rule out supporting the draft. broader law.

“I’m definitely open to this concept, but I want to get a feel for what the implementation would look like,” said Kim, who has a strong military presence in her district. The New Jersey Democrat added he wanted to know what the “negative consequences” are of removing crimes, in particular, from that military chain of command.

One idea under consideration is to include both the sexual assault and serious crimes provision in the bill, but with a longer time frame for serious crimes, Democrats involved in the talks said. But it’s unclear if that could gain enough support.

The dispute raises questions about how the larger measure – championed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.) – can become law. Some Democrats who support the two provisions were on the fence because any addition to the serious crimes provision could delay the entire bill, a bipartisan measure named in honor of Vanessa Guillén, the soldier murdered at Fort Hood in April 2020 after being sexually harassed by her. supervisor.

“I think there was a strong argument for making this a bigger bill. Many fellow Democrats are also worried that everything will sink, ”said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.). “It is more important to pass something than to pass everything at once. ”

The most likely path, senior Democrats say, is to include this measure in Congress’ sprawling national defense bill this fall, the National Defense Authorization Act. Still, Speier and Brown are also pushing for a floor-wide vote across the House and made their point in a caucus-wide meeting on Wednesday.

“It is my intention that it pass intact,” Speier said in an interview.

The proposal would likely be presented as an amendment when the Armed Services Committee considers its version of the Defense Bill in September.

Brown acknowledged that some of his colleagues were still finalizing their decisions, saying some Democrats were “kind of sympathetic to the department’s claim that this is a major change. … What I’m saying is that it was a big change when we broke up the army in 1948.

The effort to reform the military justice system has drawn bipartisan support in both chambers. Several House Republicans are co-sponsoring Speier and Brown’s bill, including Armed Services members Mike Turner from Ohio and Trent Kelly from Mississippi.

But there is disagreement over how Congress should overhaul the military justice system to tackle military sexual assault and other issues plaguing the ranks.

Opinions about how the military should handle sexual assault cases quickly changed as lawmakers and even senior Pentagon officials grew unhappy with the military’s inability to stem the tide of sexual assault. .

Austin approved removing the power of military commanders to decide whether or not to prosecute sex crimes after an independent commission appointed by the Pentagon chief recommended the change. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley has also made waves by dropping his long-held objection to the removal of sexual assault charges from the chain of command this spring.

But supporters of a new reform, led by Gillibrand and others, argue that broader reform is needed. They want to remove the power from commanders to prosecute all serious crimes that are not unique to the military and hand power over to independent military prosecutors. They point to racial disparities in troops facing courts martial, in addition to sexual assault, as one reason why comprehensive reform is essential.

Pentagon leaders, however, have warned of more sweeping changes in the military justice system.

The clash within the party is also taking place publicly in the Senate, where Gillibrand tried to force a ground vote on his military justice and sexual assault legislation for months, but was blocked by the chairman of the armed services of the Senate, Jack Reed (DR.I.) Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.

Reed endorsed the limited approach of simply changing the way the military prosecutes sexual assault cases, aligning itself with the Pentagon leadership. He has also sought to limit debate to the Armed Services Commission and its annual defense bill, which is under consideration this week. Gillibrand maintains that this decision could lead to the torpedoing of his proposal during the end of the year closed-door negotiations on the bill to be adopted.

Gillibrand, who chairs the armed services panel that deals with military personnel issues, on Tuesday won a bipartisan vote in subcommittee markup to tie his overhaul of military justice to the national defense authorization law. But the measure has yet to survive closed-door deliberations by the Senate Armed Services Committee – which began Wednesday morning – where opponents of the measure are likely to try to remove the larger measure from the bill.

“I know we’re definitely going to do something, whether it’s just sexual assault or more, that’s the question,” Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) Said.

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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