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Uberti: Kirsten Gillibrand and Rand Paul, unlikely allies in fighting military sexual assaults

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks while flanked by

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks while flanked by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). (July 16, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

While renewing her push on Capitol Hill to reform the military justice system’s prosecution of sexual assault, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was flanked by two unlikely allies.

The New York Democrat was joined at a news conference Tuesday by a pair of hard-charging tea party darlings: Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Both threw their weight behind Gillibrand’s proposal to remove the prosecution of sex-related crimes from the military’s chain of command.

Cruz and Paul aren’t the first Republicans to support the plan, which has encountered fierce opposition from the Pentagon and lawmakers in both parties. But the stance of the two senators — often considered leaders of a youthful, aggressive GOP wave — contrasts sharply with that of a party that has traditionally cozied up to the military-industrial complex.

Gillibrand, chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, proposed the groundbreaking reform after a Pentagon report estimated 26,000 sexual assaults in the military last year. Though men comprise a majority of victims, the report said one-fifth of servicewomen are abused throughout their careers. Many victims surveyed decried limited legal punishment and fear of retaliation as barriers to reporting incidents to commanders.

Cruz had already voiced support of Gillibrand’s proposal when it foundered in committee. But the libertarian-leaning Paul’s move provides additional political cover for other GOP senators to back the bill. For the rising GOP star — often rumored as a 2016 presidential candidate — supporting the proposal bolsters his record of challenging the Pentagon and addresses an issue championed by many women’s groups.

Gillibrand’s bill is a sound plan to return credibility to the military justice system. To get Paul on board, it was narrowed to leave minor offenses such as going AWOL and disobeying orders within the chain of command. But its passage in the Senate is far from certain. Even more unlikely is for the GOP-led House to side with her.

The unexpected alliance between the Senate’s right and left wings, however, is a step forward. And though passage seems far-fetched, it might grease the wheels for additional bipartisan proposals to address the military’s sex abuse epidemic. And it might foster more cooperative relationships among supporters of the measure: liberals such as Gillibrand and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and conservatives such as Cruz and Paul.

Paul, like most politicians, publicly lauds such across-the-aisle efforts. But he adds a dose of honesty when describing his decision-making process.

“I try not to look at issues from a partisan point of view,” he said at today’s news conference. “I'm sure I do sometimes, but I try not to.”

That’s the type of candid honesty that the Senate sorely lacks.