An uphill battle for a bill that addresses sexual assault in the military might have just gotten easier. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg
An uphill battle for a bill that addresses sexual assault in the military might have just gotten easier. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Advocates of changing the way the military handles sexual-assault cases are intensifying their efforts after a defeat in the Senate last month. They are getting an unexpected boost from a case involving a general who received minimal punishment after being found guilty of having an affair with and mistreating a female subordinate.

Nancy Parrish, the president of Protect Our Defenders, which is pushing to remove sexual-assault cases from the military chain of command, said her group would begin a campaign on the issue in June. Through social media and "targeted" cable television ads, Protect Our Defenders aims to pressure about a dozen senators to switch their votes and support the proposal by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Gillibrand's measure, which would remove sexual-assault cases from military jurisdiction, garnered a majority in the Senate but fell five votes shy of the 60 required to overcome a filibuster.

Supporters of the Gillibrand initiative believe their case was strengthened when, after the vote, Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, who had pleaded guilty to sexually mistreating a subordinate officer, was given a slap on the wrist by a military judge. He paid a small fine, avoided jail time and kept his pension.

Parrish says the Sinclair verdict is an outrage, but it also was a "gift" for those arguing that the military often isn't able to deal seriously with sexual-assault cases in the ranks.

People who favor changing the system are furious with President Barack Obama, who largely has ducked the issue. White House aides privately have told supporters that a Democratic president can't take on the military brass, most of whom oppose any change.

The Senate vote produced an unusual alliance of liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans who opposed Gillibrand's bill. A few staunch conservatives, including Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, supported it.

The targets of the June campaign include a handful of Republicans from Democratic or Democratic-leaning states: Mark Kirk of Illinois, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio. There's a comparable group of a few liberal Democrats, many of whom usually back women's issues but voted against Gillibrand's measure. These include Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia, Tom Carper of Delaware and Angus King, an independent from Maine.

But prominent Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat, also sided with the military. Another important opponent was Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri. She was one of only three, out of 20, female senators to oppose Gillibrand's bill. McCaskill presented her own bill, which changes the way sex crimes are handled by the military. That measure passed the Senate 97-0.

(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @AlHuntDC.)

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