The Senate on Monday unanimously approved legislation that boosts protections for victims of military sexual assault.
In a 97-0 vote, the Senate approved S. 1917, the Victims Protection Act. The new bill eliminates the ability to cite a soldier's good record when defending that soldier against assault charges.
It also allows the victims of sexual assault to say whether they'd prefer their cases handled in a military or civilian jurisdiction, and includes sexual assault as part of commanders' performance assessments.
The legislation from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is a less controversial bill than Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill, which the Senate rejected last week, although 55 senators voted in support of it.
Gillibrand's bill would have taken the decision to prosecute sexual assault cases outside the military's chain of command. The Pentagon and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) opposed that change.
Gillibrand and her supporters argued that the proposal is necessary because victims aren’t reporting sexual assault crimes for fear of reprisal, while opponents and Pentagon brass said that commanders needed to maintain accountability to curb the problem of sexual assault within the military’s ranks.
McCaskill’s bill keeps the current military justice system intact.
Ahead of Monday’s vote, Levin spoke in support of McCaskill’s bill, saying it adds “important new protections” in addition to what was accomplished in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) last year.
“We can approve legislation that adds important new protections for victims of sexual assault,” Levin said. “They will surely make a major contribution in protecting the troops who protect us.”
McCaskill has said the changes in the NDAA are "historic" and will help the military curb the number of sexual assaults within its ranks. The law stripped commanders' ability to overturn guilty verdicts, required the discharge of those convicted of sexual assault and expanded a special counsel program giving victims legal representation.
It’s unclear if Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will bring up McCaskill’s bill for a vote on the House floor. The legislation may instead be incorporated into this year's Defense authorization bill, which the House Armed Services Committee expects to take up around May.
A committee aide said the legislation is "worthy of consideration."
Gillibrand and McCaskill have battled for almost a year on the chain of command issue, holding dueling press conferences, releasing fact checks and counter-fact checks and mounting private lobbying campaigns with their colleagues.
Lawmakers have become more outspoken about the issue since the release of a Pentagon report estimating there were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, an increase of one-third.