Senate set to vote on competing military sexual assault reform bills

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., thanked Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., for their conservative support for a measure that would allow a prosecutor, instead of a commander, monitor and try sexual assault cases in the military. Her bill is set to get a vote in the coming weeks.

The Senate is set to vote on two competing bills that aim to reform how the military handles sexual assault cases, a contentious debate that has loomed for months and split the Democratic Party.

The most contentious reforms are being offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has championed the cause of removing the decision to prosecute sexual assault cases from the chain of command. Anything less, she says, won't go far enough to convince victims that justice is possible within the military.

Gillibrand's crusade on the issue has pitted her against Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., whose proposal includes a package of less controversial reforms would keep the decision to prosecute within the chain of command, but take away the ability of commanders to overturn a conviction and eliminate the "good soldier" defense, among other things.

A vote is expected in the next two weeks.

"Military sexual assault survivors have bravely walked the halls of Congress for over a year now advocating for this change, reliving some of the worst moments of their lives, so hopefully another service member doesn't have to. I am pleased that their long wait for their day on the Senate floor appears to be nearing an end," Gillibrand said after the news that her bill would get a vote."

McCaskill has the backing of top Pentagon brass, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and the Senate's defense hawks like Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. Gillibrand, on the other hand, has the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and a handful of Republican lawmakers that includes outspoken conservatives like Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.

McCaskill has suggested that both bills would need to get a 60-vote majority, though hers is much more likely to clear that threshold because it is less controversial. So far, Gillibrand has 55 public backers including herself, five short of the 60 she would need to overcome a filibuster. Still, she says she is confident that she would be able to get the necessary votes.

Gillibrand has worked tirelessly to gain supporters, adding Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Ks., to the list on Wednesday just two days after he blocked her bill while seeking a vote on an Iran sanctions bill that Reid has objected to.

After studying the issue and meeting with colleagues and stakeholders, Moran announced his support for the bill saying that he believes it "will protect individuals from sexual assault, give victims the confidence they need to report crimes, and make certain perpetrators are prosecuted."

Gillibrand held a hearing on the relationship between military sexual assault, posttraumatic stress disorder and suicide on Wednesday to keep the issue in the public eye. She had initially tried to get her reforms included as an amendment to annual defense appropriations bill that passed in December, but it was set aside for a later vote in order to facilitate a compromise bill that would pass both the House and Senate. The defense bill did include many of reforms McCaskill prefers, including removing military commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, requiring a civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case and requiring that any individual convicted of sexual assault face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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