Gillibrand sees assault vote slip away

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is headed back to the drawing board with her controversial proposal to take sexual assault cases outside the chain of command.

Gillibrand had been assured a vote on her plan during work on the Defense authorization bill.

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But a dispute over amendments is prompting Congress to ready an alternative procedure to pass the legislation — one that isn’t likely allow the Senate to consider any major changes to the bill.

It’s a frustrating development for Gillibrand and her supporters, after a vote on her measure looked imminent before Thanksgiving.

Senate aides say they don’t expect any more significant amendment votes on the Defense bill because of the push to pass it before Dec. 13, when the House is scheduled to adjourn for the year.

The Defense bill, which has been signed into law 51 straight years, is considered "must-pass" because it authorizes provisions like pay raises for troops and the payment of death benefits.

Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said the House and Senate panels were preparing to “ping-pong” the Defense bill by reaching a preconference agreement that’s passed as a new bill in the House, then the Senate.

The maneuver would skip over the Senate’s normal passage of the bill on the floor and a formal conference committee, although the Senate would have a chance to amend it.

But Smith said there isn’t time for the bill to go back and forth with any major amendments.

“We’re assuming that this is a one volley game,” he told reporters Thursday.

While Smith said controversial measures already included in one or both of the chambers' bills could get tackled through the informal conference committee, new amendments like Gillibrand’s — or a potentially tougher Iran sanctions measure — would not be considered.

Gillibrand spokeswoman Bethany Lesser said the senator is “confident” she will eventually receive a vote on her measure, even if it isn’t voted on as an amendment to the Defense bill.

Her amendment was introduced as a stand-alone measure on the floor last month under a procedure that would allow Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to bring it straight to the floor.

Still, Gillibrand had fully expected she would have the more straightforward approach to vote on her measure through the “must-pass” Defense authorization bill.

The proposal to prosecute sexual assault and other major criminal cases outside the chain of command has generated heated debate in the Senate, drawing supporters and detractors in both parties.

Gillibrand and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the chief opponent of her proposal, fought intensely for the votes of undecided senators in the lead-up to the Defense bill’s consideration.

Gillibrand needed 60 votes for her amendment, and had secured 53 publicly by the day of the potential vote, when the Senate took six hours to debate it.

A vote was stymied, however, when Republicans objected on the grounds that Reid was not allowing their amendments to receive votes.

Now it looks like there will be few, if any, amendments considered in the Senate on the bill, although any senator could still object to a quick passage of the legislation.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Senate leaders have also not given up hope that they could still quickly consider the bill with amendments when the Senate returns next week.

But congressional aides and advocates on the issue say they aren’t expecting Gillibrand’s measure to get a vote because the bill has to pass before the House adjourns.

The underlying defense bill is expected to include dozens of provisions on military sexual assault. Smith said that those provisions — such as stripping commanders’ ability to overturn guilty verdicts and requiring discharge for those convicted of sexual assault — are likely to remain in the final bill.

Most of those provisions have received near-universal support, including from Gillibrand and her supporters, who say they are a step in the right direction but don’t go far enough to address sexual assault in the military.

“There’s so much in the underlying bill, outside of the [Gillibrand amendment], that does a lot of really, really good things for victims,” said Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN).

Jacob’s organization was one of several groups lobbying undecided senators in favor Gillibrand’s measure ahead of the potential Senate vote last month.

Both SWAN and Protect Our Defenders, another advocacy group for victims of military sexual assault, said they took their lobbying campaigns back to the states, when the Senate went home for recess.

Whether Gillibrand gets a vote next week, advocates said they planned to keep up the lobbying that helped increase Gillibrand’s list of supporters to 53.

“Once they recessed, we moved that battle to the states. We had our supporters doing the same kind of thing except doing it at the state level,” Jacob said. “Now that they’re coming back to D.C., we’ll be doing the same thing here.”