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Policy: Law

Joni Ernst has already changed the debate on military sexual assault

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Politics,Betsy Woodruff,The Pentagon,Iowa,National Security,Campaigns,PennAve,Military Sexual Assault,Law,Bruce Braley,Joni Ernst,Rape

Joni Ernst's support for changing how the military handles sexual assault may have more of an effect on Capitol Hill than on her campaign.

The Iowa Republican Senate candidate made news when she told Time last week that she believes military sexual assault cases should be handled outside of the chain of command.

Though Ernst didn't say whether she'd back any specific legislation, that's the same approach taken in a bill by Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand which failed by just five votes earlier this year.

It's also the same position as her Democratic opponent, Rep. Bruce Braley.

That means it's not much of a campaign issue, although political observers say it was a smart move that allowed Ernst to look like a bridge-builder.

“It absolutely makes Joni Ernst appear more senatorial,” said Lisa Boothe, a Republican strategist with the Black Rock Group. “It gives her an opportunity to highlight her military service, while acknowledging her willingness to work in a bipartisan manner on serious issues.”

On Capitol Hill, meantime, her support means the proposal is that much closer to passing the Senate, no matter who wins the Iowa race in November. And if she wins, it might encourage more Republicans to support the legislation at a time when they are trying to do more to attract women voters.

Though it was championed by a Democratic senator, Gillibrand's proposal didn't break evenly along party lines. Two of her most active co-sponsors were Republicans who are considering a presidential run in 2016: Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.

And one of the bill's biggest opponents was a Democratic woman, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

There is little debate that the military has a problem with sexual assault.

According to CNN, one anonymous survey from 2012 showed that 26,000 military members were sexually assaulted or received unwanted sexual contact.

But the debate has been whether the best solution is to change who decides how to handle cases. Currently, the commanders of accused service members are responsible for deciding whether they will be prosecuted.

Gillibrand's bill would change that, while McCaskill, the Pentagon and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., argued it would unduly affect the military's traditional chain of command.

The bill drew 55 votes in favor in March, but fell short of the 60 vote requirement to proceed with debate.

Hill proponents of Gillibrand's bill are lauding her move.

“With more than 20 years of military experience, Joni Ernst understands probably more than any member of the Senate the importance of solving the problem of sexual assault in our military,” said Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Cruz.

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Betsy Woodruff

Political Writer
The Washington Examiner

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