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More than meets the eye on 'anti-rape' vote

Picking one's battles has never been trickier, especially if you're a member of the benighted Republican Party.

So the question is this: Do you support rape?

And, of course, no one (except a rapist) does, right?

Yet 30 Republican members of the U.S. Senate have been getting phone calls lately from people asking, "Why do you support rape?"

These callers most likely are familiar with the mock Web site RepublicansForRape.org, which recounts the recent skirmish over a so-called anti-rape amendment to the Senate defense appropriations bill proposed by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

The amendment, which passed Oct. 6 by a 68-30 vote, was intended to prevent the Pentagon from contracting with companies that require employees to resolve disputes through arbitration rather than through the courts.

The impetus behind the amendment was the 2005 horror story of a 20-year-old employee of Halliburton/KBR in Iraq, who alleged that she was drugged, gang-raped and held captive for 24 hours in a shipping container without food or water. When she sought legal recourse, the defense contractor argued that under its employment contract she had to pursue her complaint through arbitration rather than the courts.

No one hearing details of the alleged assault wants to be on the side of those who attacked her — or the company that refused to help her. If you're a remotely savvy politician, that's not a battle you want to join. One might assume, therefore, that there must be some reasonable explanation for 30 Republican senators — including Kansans Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback — taking a position that would invite vilification, other than that Halliburton donates more campaign money to Republicans than to Democrats.

Politically, this couldn't be worse timing for Republicans, who can't seem to shake their white-male-patriarchal-oppressor image. Picture it: 30 Republicans, all men and all white, pitted against a young woman who says she was raped by a gang of Halliburton thugs.

Republicans, alas, haven't been brilliant in explaining their position. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in a statement cringingly ridiculed by Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show," said the Senate shouldn't be in the business of regulating contracts and that the amendment was a political attack on Halliburton.

In fact, the reason some Republicans objected is that the amendment was overbroad and might not be enforceable. The latter possibility was raised by the Defense Department in a letter to senators, saying that the department or its contractors "may not be in a position to know about such things. Enforcement would be problematic."

It would be easy enough to infer a conspiracy of denial, if not for the fact that the White House agrees.

The real goal, obviously, should be to ensure that no one is denied access to justice and that arbitration agreements are nonbinding in criminal acts. In fact, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month in the woman's favor, agreeing that the alleged gang rape wasn't related to her employment and that she therefore wasn't bound by the company's arbitration agreement.

The employee's painful ordeal is far from over, and her byzantine route to justice has been indefensibly arduous, but at least now she can have her day in court.

Though it appears that there are plenty of bad guys in this story — may they get their due — the 30 Republican senators have been unfairly smeared for doing the harder thing, for the right reasons.