But the push from Brown and others has led to a furious behind-the-scenes scramble by Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who have vehemently opposed the change, according to several people familiar with the discussions. In some cases, Austin has privately called the Democrats to oppose it.
Democratic divisions over the overhaul are hampering the passage of what many Democrats see as one of their few chances to pass criminal justice reforms this Congress, especially now that bipartisan talks on police reform have stalled. Powerful groups, such as the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus, have backed the bill, but some Democrats with a national security background or large military presence in their districts have not supported it.
With several of its members undecided, House Armed Services chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) postponed consideration of the high-profile bill, scheduled for Thursday, according to committee officials.
Smith said Democrats agree that a major shift is needed in the military justice system, but whether changes are needed only for sex crimes or should extend to all crimes is still up for debate. Lawmakers, he said, “were not 100 percent clear” about the differences between the competing proposals.
When the Pentagon gave lawmakers a report on military sexual assault saying, “We recommend taking it out for all sex crimes,” they said, “Oh yeah, I love that,” Smith told Mediafrolic. “And when someone said, ‘We’re going to take it away for all crimes,’ [they said,] “We like that too.””
Smith said Democrats “didn’t understand” it was a “binary choice.” He wants a clear explanation of the recommendation of the independent review committee versus the proposal to remove military authority over all serious crimes “and then we choose one or the other.”
While still undecided on the way forward, Smith said he “tends to support” the broader change that removes all serious crimes from the chain of command.
“It’s really complicated, but it’s actually the simpler, cleaner approach,” he said.
Rep. Andy Kim (DN.J.), who is among the Democrats still deciding the issue of serious crimes, said he is seeking answers to certain logistical questions, but has not ruled out supporting the broader bill.
“I’m definitely open to that concept, but I want to get an idea of what the implementation would look like,” said Kim, who has a large military presence in his district. The New Jersey Democrat added that he wants to know what the “negative consequences” are for removing crimes in particular from that military chain of command.
One idea under consideration is to include both the sexual assault and serious crime provisions in the bill, but with a longer timeline for the serious crimes, according to Democrats involved in the discussions. But it’s unclear whether that can get enough support.
The dispute raises questions about how the broader measure – championed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.) – could become law. Some Democrats who support both provisions have been on the fence because any addition to the serious crime provision could hold up the entire bill, a bipartisan measure named after Vanessa Guillén, the soldier killed at Fort Hood in April 2020 after being sexually assaulted. her supervisor was harassed.
“I think there was a strong argument for making it a broader bill. There is also a concern among many fellow Democrats that they don’t want the whole thing to sink,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) “It’s more important to get something than to get everything at once.”
The most likely path, senior Democrats say, is to include the measure in Congress’ sprawling National Defense Authorization Act this fall, the National Defense Authorization Act. Still, Speier and Brown are also pushing for a ground vote in the full House, making their case in a caucus-wide meeting on Wednesday.
“My intention is for it to come through intact,” Speier said in an interview.
The bill would likely be tabled as an amendment when the full Armed Services Committee reviews its version of the defense bill in September.
Brown acknowledged that some of his colleagues were still finalizing their decisions, saying that some Democrats “had some sort of sympathy for the department’s claim that this is a big change. … What I’m saying is it was a big change.” when we desegregated the military in 1948.”
The effort to reform the military justice system has met with bipartisan support in both chambers. Several House Republicans are sponsoring Speier and Brown’s bill, including members of the armed forces Mike Turner of Ohio and Trent Kelly of Mississippi.
But there is disagreement over how Congress should overhaul the military justice system to combat military assault and other issues plaguing the ranks.
Opinions on how the military should deal with cases of sexual assault have changed rapidly as lawmakers and even top Pentagon officials became dissatisfied with the military’s inability to stem the tide of sexual assault.
Austin approved removing the power of military commanders to decide whether to prosecute sex crimes after an independent commission appointed by the Pentagon chief recommended the change. Joint Chiefs chairman General Mark Milley also caused a stir by dropping his longstanding objection to removing prosecutions for sexual assault from the chain of command this spring.
But proponents of further reform, led by Gillibrand and others, argue that broader reform is needed. They want to abolish the authority of commanders to prosecute all serious crimes not unique to the military and transfer authority to independent military prosecutors. They point to racial disparities in troops facing courts-martial, in addition to sexual violence, as one reason why comprehensive reforms are essential.
Pentagon buyers, however, have warned of more sweeping changes to the military justice system.
The intra-party clash is also playing out publicly in the Senate, where Gillibrand spent months trying to get a ground vote on her military justice and assault legislation, but was blocked by Senate Armed Forces Chairman Jack Reed (DR) .I.) and ranking. Republican Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma.
Reed has endorsed the limited approach of just changing the way the military prosecutes sexual assault cases, and joins the Pentagon leadership. He has also sought to bring the debate to the Armed Services Committee and his annual defense bill, due this week. Gillibrand says the move could see her proposal torpedoed in closed-door negotiations at the end of the year over the law to be passed.
Gillibrand, chair of the Armed Forces panel that deals with issues related to military personnel, won a bipartisan vote on Tuesday in a subcommittee to link her revision of military law to the National Defense Authorization Act. But the measure has yet to survive the full deliberations of the Senate Armed Services Committee — which kicked off Wednesday morning — where opponents of the measure are likely to try to get the broader measure out of the bill.
“I know we’re definitely going to get something done whether it’s just sexual assault or more is the question,” said Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Caliph.)
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.