WASHINGTON -- Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who spearheaded a ferocious, ultimately unsuccessful public fight to revamp how sexual assault is reported and prosecuted in the military, said on Wednesday that she would personally petition the president to reconsider the issue.
"I'm going to ask for another meeting," Gillibrand said at a lunch organized by Bloomberg News. "I'm going to ask for an opportunity for victims to meet with him. I also want the benefit of the data that I've been waiting for from the Secretary of Defense [on records of sexual assaults at major bases] and the Department of Defense, because whatever we did, we didn't persuade them enough."
Gillibrand's pledge to bring the issue of sexual assault in the military to the White House doorstep is the latest in her ongoing effort to resuscitate a debate that was recently put on pause.
After months of consideration, Congress passed a package of military sexual assault reforms in December 2013 that takes a few steps to crack down on the epidemic. The reforms make it a crime for a commander to retaliate against an accuser, require an inspector general to investigate all complaints of retaliation, ensure the review of any decision by a commander not to prosecute a sexual assault complaint, and mandate the dishonorable discharge of any service member convicted of sexual assault.
But the reforms stop short of taking military sexual assault cases out of the chain of command -- a change for which Gillibrand has been fighting for the past year. She claims victims have told her over and over that they are afraid to report their sexual assaults because they do not trust the chain of command, and that the current reforms don't go far enough to address that problem. Those conversations with victims have become even more commonplace since she began publicly advocating her bill, she said on Tuesday.
Gillibrand attracted a number of surprising allies, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in her fight to strip commanders of their power over sexual assault cases within their ranks. But the Pentagon has staunchly opposed her proposal; and in March the bill fell just short of the 60 votes it needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate.
Gillibrand said that several senators, including Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Angus King (I-Maine), have said they would support her legislation should the recently approved reforms prove insufficient. Others have also offered their support, she said, but she declined to reveal those names.
While President Barack Obama never embraced Gillibrand's specific proposal, he ordered a one-year review of the new sexual assault reforms to determine whether they go far enough. He said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey have until Dec. 14, 2014, to report back to him on the military's progress, at which point he will asses whether "additional reforms" are needed.
On Tuesday, Gillibrand applied more pressure on the president to hold him accountable for the reforms.
"The president has an opportunity to lead on this issue," she said. "What he has said is he wants to end the scourge of sexual violence not only in the military but also on college campuses and throughout society. I believe him when he says that. He has given the military one year to show that they can do this. That year expires in December. So my goal is to have an opportunity to continue to advocate this issue to the administration directly, to the president, to [Defense] Secretary [Chuck] Hagel."
If the president were to endorse her reforms, she added, it would basically guarantee their passage through Congress.
"If he says, 'I do not believe commanders need this right,' and Secretary Hagel reinforces that, then it will need legislation, because we have to change the UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] -- but the battle is over," she said. "If the commander in chief says it should change, then it will change."
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