An article in Politico recently outlined the uphill battle that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) will face later this month as she pushes to remove the chain of command from the prosecution of military sexual assault cases. The Senator has spent a great deal of time making the public case for such an overhaul, using her position on the Armed Services committee as a platform and helping to publicize the experiences of victims of sexual assault in the military. There have been highly-visible disagreements among Senate Democrats over how best to remedy the issue, and now, according to Politico, Senator Gillibrand's amendment to the Defense Authorization bill must overcome a filibuster in order to be considered.
This article would have benefitted from a stronger explanation of the filibuster and from a little bit of theory. As Krehbiel's argument in Pivotal Politics makes clear, the most important voter in the Senate is the "pivotal" voter, the one who would decide whether or not the amendment will be filibustered. If we think about this as a unidimensional issue and consider only the Senate, with its 53- (or 55-, if you count Independents) person majority it would seem that Gillibrand should be able to garner enough support for her amendment to be added to the Defense Authorization bill. But as the amendment's current whip list includes only 46 Senators, it seems that Gillibrand's proposed reforms are too far left to attract moderate Democrats. Carl Levin (D-MI), who chairs the Armed Services Committee and who will be managing debate on the Defense Authorization bill later this month, has said that Senators will demand threaten a filibuster and force Gillibrand to get 60 votes for her amendment. Taking into account the fact that the amendment has only 46 votes, it seems that the filibuster threat is premature.
Politico described the filibuster threat as a "big hit" to Gillibrand's amendment, but in fact it should not have come as a surprise. This is not a case of gridlock as Krehbiel describes it, "the absence of policy change in spite of the existence of a legislative majority that favors change." While a majority of Senators may favor reforming how the Armed Forces handle sexual assault within their ranks, they clearly remain divided over how to reform those practices. Gillibrand's proposal has long been controversial, even within her own party. It is not surprising, then that the 60th voter in the Senate favors filibustering the amendment. While a 60-vote bar is certainly higher than a 50-vote bar, Politico should have pointed out that this turn of events was probably to be expected.