Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand walked into a Senate Armed Services Committee markup Wednesday prepared to fight. Her expected opponents in her quest to strip military commanders out of the process for prosecuting sexual assault cases: committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., conservatives on the committee and many other members of both parties.
But Gillibrand walked away with a very unlikely ally: tea party freshman Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Cruz made a surprise announcement during Wednesday's markup of the Defense Authorization bill that he would support Gillibrand's effort to afford military prosecutors, not commanders, the power to decide which sexual assault cases to try—a proposal everyone in the committee knew was likely to be voted down that day.
"I am going to be voting against the chairman's amendment. And I am going to vote against it because I was persuaded by the argument that Sen. Gillibrand presented in this committee a few moments ago," Cruz announced. "I think she made a powerful and effective argument that the lack of reporting [of incidents] is driven by a fear of not having an impartial third party outside the chain of command in which to report a sexual assault."
Cruz, an outspoken conservative and major target of the left, added that he found persuasive the statistics presented by liberal Gillibrand that allies of the United States have increased reporting of military sexual assault cases following similar changes in policy.
The government has been challenging the military to find a way to crack down on sexual assault in the military following a Pentagon report indicating an epidemic of such assaults, many of which have gone unreported. Gillibrand and others believe that continuing to keep military commanders—who are within the victims' chain of command—in charge of prosecuting these cases is contributing to a lack of reporting over fears of retaliation and marginalization, as well as the general belief that cases won't be fully prosecuted.
Gillibrand advocates installing a set of military lawyers to decide which cases to prosecute. Opponents believe the power to make these decisions should stay with the commanders.
We would be "saying we have no confidence you can fix this," Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who voted against Gillibrand's proposal, said Wednesday.
In the end, Gillibrand's effort failed by a vote of 17 to 9 in favor of Levin's amendment retaining commanders' power over prosecutions.
“I am deeply disappointed the voices of the victims of sexual assault have been drowned out by the military leaders who have failed to combat this crisis. While, in my view, we did not take all the steps required to solve the problem, there is no doubt we have taken several significant steps forward with the current version of the bill," Gillibrand said in a statement. (Levin's bill, for example, requires high-level review when the prosecution of sexual assault allegations is not pursued.) She added that she will continue to fight for her proposal when the bill is debated by the full Senate.
"Our advocacy on this issue to remove the sole decision-making of the chain of command in serious crimes has only just begun."
It's unclear how or if Cruz will factor into that fight going forward.
Cruz's spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said in a statement to Yahoo News following the vote that Cruz "remains deeply concerned about reports of significant sexual abuse in the military—a grave violation of trust and the duty we owe to protect our fighting men and women—and he believes we should be looking at innovative ways to make an immediate impact in combating it."