Gillibrand and Ernst are showing a model for actual bipartisanship in bill to stop sexual assault

Bridging ideological and partisan gaps has proven difficult in today's politics but two women senators are showing that it's still possible
Joni Ernst (R-Nebraska) and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) stand together to promote their bill to combat sexual assault in the U.S. military. Photo: Screenshot

First published at The 19th

In between votes on Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, took the opportunity to continue lobbying a Republican holdout to support a bill to tackle sexual assault in the military that she has been championing for eight years. 

Waiting outside the chamber was Sen. Joni Ernst, a retired lieutenant colonel in the National Guard who is a key collaborator on the legislation. Before going back in to retrieve Gillibrand, Ernst, an Iowa Republican, remarked that her Democratic colleague has been tireless and persuasive in securing support for the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act.

“I think it’s very rare for a member of the Senate to ask for a meeting every year of every senator, no matter what,” Gillibrand said about their effort to pass a measure that would put independent military prosecutors, and not commanders, in charge of handling allegations of serious crimes including sexual assault. 

“I’ve done it over and over again for eight straight years, I really tried to work with them because I respect them, and I respect their views, and I respect their questions, and I respect their concerns and have tried to draw them into this process — and Joni has taken that meeting every year,” Gillibrand told The 19th, who sat down with both senators.

Their partnership started with their work on the Armed Services Committee. Over the years, a friendship was forged. Now, that friendship has yielded bipartisan legislation with an unprecedented 63 co-sponsors and the support of both party leaders. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered fitness facilities, the two women used to go to “Biker Barre” classes together in the mornings. They played on the Senate softball team against the press. They attended Bible study together. They went on an official trip to Afghanistan, where Gillibrand said she learned more about Ernst’s combat experience. Ernst went to Gillibrand’s Washington residence for family dinners. “You made a delicious meatloaf,” Ernst said, before Gillibrand interjected to compliment the “excellent” banana bread they made together. 

“It’s one of those things that I wish more Americans could see. We’ve been able to invest in each other through the years, and that friendship has allowed us to have hard conversations when we’re here at work … and still remain friends,” Ernst said.

“We have worked very hard to develop a trust between each other, so that when we’re working on hard issues like this, we can respect each other’s views and come together and find that common ground and knit it together, and that’s what we did in this bill,” Gillibrand said. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said that Gillibrand’s work on the military sexual assault bill “proves that she’s a senator who can bring bipartisanship to a city that needs more bipartisanship.” Ernst, meanwhile, was “key to getting the cloture-proof majority that we have for this bill,” he said, referencing the 60-vote threshold most legislation needs to advance in the 100-seat evenly divided Senate. 

But Gillibrand and Ernst hit a roadblock this week, when Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and James Inhofe of Oklahoma — the Democratic chair of the armed services panel and its ranking Republican, respectively — objected to their request for a full Senate vote. 

Gillibrand said Monday night on the Senate floor that after eight years of negotiations, it was time for the full Senate to consider the legislation. Ernst, Grassley, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut who also serves on the panel, backed her up. 

But though a single senator can ask for a vote on a bill, a single senator can also block it from consideration, which Reed did, saying they should wait for the results of a 90-day study on sexual assault by a Pentagon commission. In his corner was Inhofe, who said “when it comes to important issues like this, we should not rush” and recommended the committee consider it again as part of the annual defense authorization act later this year. 

The commission is expected to recommend that independent prosecutors handle allegations of sexual assault, harassment and some hate crimes. The bill backed by Gillibrand and Ernst would apply to all serious crimes but leave commanders in charge of handling misdemeanors and military-specific legal infractions. 

“The Armed Services Committee has lost their opportunity to claim sole jurisdiction over this issue by failing to improve the situation over the last 10 years,” Gillibrand responded on the floor. 

The offices of Reed and Inhofe did not respond to requests to comment.

In their joint interview, Gillibrand and Ernst said they would press forward to secure a vote before the August recess, potentially as soon as this month. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he hopes to bring it up for a vote. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has backed the measure in the past. “We’ve asked, and it’s being considered,” Gillibrand said.

Ernst, a sexual assault survivor, said that while she initially had reservations about changing the military’s chain of command for handling allegations of serious crimes, she had “always said that if things did not improve, I would keep an open mind.” The 2020 killing of Vanessa Guillen, a soldier stationed in Fort Hood, Texas — a fellow soldier was charged in her death — changed her mind. A report on Guillen’s death revealed “such a damaging command climate that allowed harassment, sexual assault, murder to happen on an installation,” she said. 

Ernst went to Gillibrand with some proposed changes. They added prevention measures and a provision that would notify a commander of an allegation of a serious crime against a soldier in their ranks so they could address other changes that needed to be made in the overall command climate. 

“Now, even as a former commander, I’m comfortable with this language,” Ernst said. That, she said, brought more of their colleagues on board.

Gillibrand said their legislation would apply to serious crimes more broadly because military experts have told them creating a prosecution process specific to sexual assault and harassment would create a “pink court used by only female service members that will further cause division, stigmatize and undermine the criminal justice system.”

“Our job in the U.S. Senate is to provide oversight and accountability over the administrative branch, period. That includes the Department of Defense,” Gillibrand said. 

“And when you come to the U.S. Senate, your job is to be bipartisan and bring people together and get things done, and so we’ve taken our responsibilities very seriously,” she added.