It’s not often that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell supports a progressive Democrat’s deeply consequential bill — especially one that’s despised by the military.
And yet, the Kentucky Republican voted with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and his arch nemesis, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), in favor of a bill Thursday to remove the prosecution of rape from the military chain of command. The bill was blocked anyway: it received 55 votes, short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster.
“There’s no question that sexual assault in the military is a serious and persistent problem,” McConnell said in a statement provided by his office on Thursday. “We need to solve it and I’m open to multiple ideas to get the job done. One thing we can all agree on is that the status quo is unacceptable.”
The GOP leader is running for re-election against Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, who has made it her campaign mission to paint McConnell’s agenda as thoroughly anti-woman. The attacks have so stung McConnell that his campaign once resorted to taking credit for pro-women measures he has opposed. McConnell is trailing badly with women voters, and polls by the conservative-leaning Rasmussen and the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling have found the two neck-and-neck in a hypothetical match-up.
What better way for McConnell to show he cares about women than to support a bill that takes dramatic steps to protect military rape victims? Women who serve in the military are disproportionately victimized by sexual assault, and the Pentagon’s own data show that a tiny fraction of perpetrators are ultimately brought to justice. Gillibrand’s bill sets up an independent prosecutor’s office to deal with such crimes.
“One day before the anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act — which passed despite Mitch McConnell’s objection — I am glad to see he is finally realizing women’s voices matter,” Grimes said in a statement emailed to TPM. “It shouldn’t take an election year for him to finally make the health and safety of women a priority.”
So, will McConnell’s vote cause him to suffer with conservatives, many of whom already distrust him? Probably not. Among the supporters of the Gillibrand bill were Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY), whose tea party credentials are unassailable. That makes it very difficult for McConnell’s GOP primary challenger, Matt Bevin, to use the occasion for politicking.
The real battle lines over Gillibrand’s bill were Pentagon-friendly senators in both parties, who opposed it, against a diverse mix of progressive and conservative senators, who supported it. Most of McConnell’s core leadership team voted against the legislation. The one exception? Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), who chairs the organization tasked with election Republicans to the Senate.
The vote Thursday was one of the exceptionally rare instances where McConnell could simultaneously vote with Reid and someone as progressive as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), help himself with women voters and suffer no perceivable downside with his conservative base. And on top of that, there’s no blow-back to worry about from his military establishment allies because the legislation was filibustered anyway.
A win-win for McConnell, if there ever was one.
(This article has been updated to include late comment from McConnell’s office and Grimes.)