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Military sexual assault bill stalls in Senate

Showdown anticipated this week

WASHINGTON — Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has secured public support from nearly half the Senate, but not enough votes, for her proposal to give victims of rape and sexual assault in the military an independent route outside the chain of command for prosecuting attackers.

Gillibrand’s solution for a problem the military calls an epidemic appears to have stalled in the face of united opposition from the Pentagon’s top echelon and its allies in Congress, including two female senators who are former prosecutors.

Opponents of the proposal by Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, insist that commanders, not an outside military lawyer, must be accountable for meting out justice.


Even so, major changes are coming for a decades-old military system just a few months after several high-profile cases infuriated Republicans and Democrats in a rapid chain of events by Washington standards.

‘‘Sexual assault in the military is not new, but it has been allowed to fester,’’ Gillibrand said in a recent Senate speech.

The Senate is set to consider an annual defense policy bill this week that would take away the ability of commanders to overturn jury convictions. The measure would also require dishonorable discharge or dismissal for any individual convicted of sexual assault and establish a civilian review when a decision is made not to prosecute a case.

The bill would provide a special counsel for victims and eliminate the statute of limitations.

Those changes in military law are backed by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But overshadowing the revisions is the testy, intense fight over Gillibrand’s proposal to remove the authority of commanders to prosecute cases of sexual assault. She wants to hand responsibility to seasoned military lawyers outside the chain of command.

Her solution has divided the Senate, splitting Republicans and Democrats, men and women, even former attorneys general, into unusual coalitions. The lobbying has been fierce, with dueling data, testimonials, and news conferences with victims. Opponents invited Marine Corps Brigadier General Loretta Reynolds to the closed-door Republican caucus last week.


Among Gillibrand’s 47 announced supporters are conservative Senators Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas; and Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, along with 16 of the Senate’s 20 women.

Standing against the plan is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan; the panel’s military veterans John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island; and three of the committee’s women — Senator Deb Fischer, Republican of Nebraska; and Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, and Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, both former prosecutors.

Gillibrand says she privately has received backing from more than 50 senators, but support remains short of the filibuster-proof 60 votes that likely will be needed for her amendment to the defense bill.

To secure more votes, she said last week that she was considering scaling back her plan to focus solely on sexual assault and rape instead of all serious crimes. That prompted complaints from her original backers that it would create ‘‘pink courts,’’ and Gillibrand said on ABC’s ‘‘This Week’’ Sunday she was reverting to her initial bill.