Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's military sexual assault bill hits a roadblock

(CBS News) WASHINGTON - A Pentagon study found there are thousands of assaults in the military every year. A Senate bill that would have removed military commanders from sexual assault cases seemed to have momentum, but all of that changed Wednesday.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's victory was a brief one.

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Just on Tuesday, her plan to tackle military sexual assaults passed a subcommittee with bipartisan support.

Levin: Nixing commanders' role could "weaken" prosecution of sexual assault
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.

The proposal would have taken decisions about prosecuting sexual misconduct away from commanders and placed them in the hands of experienced military lawyers.

"Men and women who are brutally raped and assaulted in the military, they just don't believe there's a possibility of justice. They don't think the chain of command can be objective," Gillibrand said.

But on Wednesday, she was bigfooted by her fellow Democrat, Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin.

Levin announced he was replacing Gillibrand's plan with his own. His version would leave commanders with decision making power, but with more oversight from the military's top brass.

That was the approach favored by military leaders, including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who said Gillibrand's approach would harm the ability of commanders to control their units.

"We need to change some things. We can do some things much better. We have to," he said. "But I think we've got to be very careful when we talk about taking the command structure out of this process."

Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
Susan Walsh/AP Photo

But for Gillibrand and her 27 co-sponsors, that command structure is contributing to the problem - the estimated 26,000 sexual assaults just in the past two years.

"My God, we've seen the people who are in charge of these units actually commit sexual assaults themselves. What more do we need? This is the moment," said California Democrat Barbara Boxer.

This is not an issue that simply separates the women from the men. Several female senators sided with Levin, and one of them, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, argued that victims will be less likely to face retaliation from their peers if a commander moves the case forward rather than an outside lawyer.

  • Nancy Cordes On Twitter»

    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.

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