Senate blocks Gillibrand sex assault bill

The Senate on Thursday blocked Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) controversial proposal to take sexual assault cases outside the military’s chain of command from moving forward.

Gillibrand’s bill received support from more than half the Senate, but the 55-45 vote fell short of the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster.

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The heated fight pitted Gillibrand against fellow Democratic Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.), as well as Pentagon leaders.

Thursday’s vote deals a blow to Gillibrand’s months-long push to make one of the most sweeping changes to the military’s judicial system in decades.

Her measure would have taken the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other major criminal cases away from commanders, giving it to military lawyers. 

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. 

Gillibrand’s legislation was divisive, splitting senators from both parties in unconventional ways.

Gillibrand won the backing of over half the Senate by gaining support from more than three quarters of Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), as well as conservatives like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) joined with Kentucky's junior senator to vote for Gillibrand's bill. McConnell had not said beforehand how he would vote.

In all, 44 Democrats backed her proposal along with 11 Republicans.

After Thursday's vote, Gillibrand said the Senate had failed victims of sexual assault and vowed to fight on with her legislation.

“For a number of people an incremental step was more meaningful to them and they wanted to see what happens," Gillibrand said. "I think there will be many more senators who will side with us [next time]."

McCaskill led the charge against Gillibrand’s proposal, arguing the legislation would actually harm the prosecution of sexual assault perpetrators.

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.

While she ultimately prevailed, the fight was difficult for McCaskill, who saw every Senate Democratic woman line up against her.

McCaskill said after the vote that Gillibrand's proposal was the only policy where she and Gillibrand were divided on military sexual assault. 

“We had one honestly held policy difference and that was voted on today," McCaskill said. "I’m confident the choice the Senate made today is the right one for victims of sexual assault.”    

McCaskill has complained that the chain of command fight distracted from the significant reforms that were signed into law in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which she says will have a major impact on curbing sexual assault in the military.

“What I’m most frustrated about is not whether we voted on this or not, but the fact that a long list of historic reforms have been totally overlooked, because there is one policy difference in this one discrete area,” McCaskill told The Hill on Wednesday.

The NDAA stripped commanders’ ability to overturn guilty verdicts, required discharge for those convicted of sexual assault and expanded a program that gives victims legal representation in court proceedings.

Congress passed the changes in response to widespread outrage over several high-profile sexual assault incidents last year, and a Pentagon report estimating there were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, an increase of one-third.

New revelations surfaced hours before Thursday’s vote, as Stars and Stripes reported that the top Army prosecutor for sexual assault cases had been suspended over allegations he had groped and tried to kiss a subordinate.

McCaskill and the Pentagon have argued that the changes made will improve prosecution of sexual assault cases and increase reporting of the crimes.

Later Thursday, the Senate unanimously voted to end debate on McCaskill's own bill 100-0, but final passage isn't expected until 5:30 p.m. Monday.

After NDAA passed in 2013, President Obama said that he was giving the military one year to make progress on sexual assault in the ranks or he would “consider additional reforms.”

Gillibrand says that the measures in last year’s Defense bill are a step forward, but they don’t go nearly far enough.

Before Thursday’s vote, she said on the Senate floor that victims don’t report sexual assaults because they don't trust their commanders.

“It's like your brother committing the sexual assault and having your father decide whether to prosecute," Gillibrand said. “The victims and the survivors of sexual assault have been walking the halls of Congress asking that we do something to protect them.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) joined Gillibrand in saying it’s long past time for Congress to act.

“We’re passed the point of tinkering. … The current structure of the military justice system is having a deterrent effect on reporting,” Grassley said. “Sexual assault is a law enforcement matter, not a military one.”

McCaskill countered that Gillibrand’s measure would fail to hold commanders accountable to fix the problem and wouldn't increase reporting.

“The policy changes that are being advocated will not work for victims,” McCaskill said. “When these changes have been enacted other places, reporting has not been increased.”

Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, echoed McCaskill’s argument that Gillibrand’s bill would prohibit commanders from being "at the heart of the issue."

“The strongest, most effective approach we can take to address sexual assault is to hold commanders accountable,” Levin said. “We must maintain the important authority to prosecute sexual assaults that our commanders now have.”

Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) had previously stated their support for Gillibrand's position, but they voted against the bill.

This story was updated at 3:34 p.m.

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