Senate to vote on military sexual assault bill that has divided GOP, much of Washington

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand expressed confidence Sunday about getting enough votes this week to change how the military deals with victims of rape and other violent crimes -- a proposal that has sharply divided Washington.

The New York Democrat is leading the effort to give armed-services victims lawyers outside the military’s chain of command, as a way to prosecuting their attackers.

“I think we'll get” the votes, Gillibrand said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We want to make sure that the men and women who serve our military have a justice system deserving of their sacrifices. They are literally giving their lives for our values, for our country. They shouldn't have a justice system that is rife with bias and unfairness.”

Gillibrand’s plan is facing a strong, united opposition from the Pentagon's top echelon and its allies in Congress. However, she made clear Sunday that she wouldn’t soften the legislation by excluding cases of murder and theft to garner more votes.

“We're going to stick to the original plan because it's a better bill,” she told ABC.

Some of the strongest Capitol Hill opposition comes from two female senators who are former prosecutors.

They insist that commanders, not an outside military lawyer, must be accountable for meting out justice.

Even so, major changes are coming for a decades-old military system just a few months after several high-profile cases infuriated Republicans and Democrats in a rapid chain of events by Washington standards.

The Senate this week is set to consider an annual defense policy bill that would strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, require dishonorable discharge or dismissal for any individual convicted of sexual assault and establish a civilian review when a decision is made not to prosecute a case.

The bill would provide a special counsel for victims and eliminate the statute of limitations.

The changes are backed by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But overshadowing the revisions is the testy, intense fight over Gillibrand's proposal to strip commanders of their authority to prosecute cases of sexual assault.

Her solution has divided the Senate, splitting Republicans and Democrats, men and women, even former attorneys general, into unusual coalitions. The lobbying has been fierce, with dueling data, testimonials and news conferences with victims. Opponents invited Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Loretta Reynolds to the closed-door Republican caucus last week.

Among Gillibrand's 47 announced supporters are conservative Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., along with 16 of the Senate's 20 women.

Standing against the plan is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.; the panel's military veterans John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., and three of the committee's women -- Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., both former prosecutors, and Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.

Gillibrand says she privately has received backing from more than 50 senators, but support remains short of the filibuster-proof 60 votes that likely will be needed for her amendment to the defense bill.

McCaskill said the Pentagon already has already taken sufficient correct action, pointing to the Defense Department saying reports of sexual assaults in the military increased by 46 percent during the last budget year.

There were 3,553 sexual assault complaints from October 2012 to June, compared with 2,434 reports during the same period the previous year, which Defense Department officials suggest shows people are more confident about coming forward now that improvements are being made in handling assaults.

Gillibrand instead points to the Pentagon’s estimate of 26,000 possibly being sexually assaulted last year, based on an anonymous survey.

Thousands of victims were unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, according to the Pentagon report earlier this year.

"They didn't trust the chain of command, Gillibrand said recently. “They didn't think anything would be done in their cases. … The second reason they didn't report was because they feared or had witnessed retaliation. ... The command climate failed those victims."

Gen. Ray Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, said last week that adopting her plan would be a "big mistake" and that it would cost an estimated $113 million a year, including salaries for about 600 attorneys and support staff.

That financial assessment doesn't take into account the expense of training members of the military, medical and mental health benefits for victims, loss of productivity and possible separation from service for a Pentagon with a fiscal year budget of more than $500 billion.

McCaskill, Ayotte and Fisher have compiled additional changes that the Senate is expected to approve. They include barring defendants from using the good military character defense, allowing sexual assault victims to challenge a discharge or separation from the service, and extending the new protections to the military service academies.

"The reason this issue is so hard is because on one side is a very simple narrative, this is victim versus commanders and you should be for the victims," McCaskill said.

"On the other side, it's much more complex, and I'm guided by practical experience handling these cases and a pretty intimate knowledge of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and how it actually works ... and making sure we have a system that's constitutional, that works and that holds commanders accountable."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.