WASHINGTON – Bowing to the Pentagon, the Senate agreed after impassioned debate Thursday to leave the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders in a struggle that highlighted the growing role of women in Congress.
The vote was 55-45 in favor of stripping commanders of that authority, but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.. Her bill would have given the decision to take serious crimes to courts-martial to seasoned military trial lawyers, independent of the chain of command.
The debate and vote were the culmination of a nearly yearlong campaign to curb sexual assault in the ranks, led by female senators who have questioned whether the military’s mostly male leadership understands differences between relatively minor sexual offenses and serious crimes that deserve swift and decisive justice.
Thursday’s rejection is unlikely to be the final word. Defeated but unyielding, Gillibrand and her allies vowed to seize the next opportunity to force another vote, probably in the spring when the Senate starts work on a sweeping defense policy bill for the 2015 fiscal year.
“Many people said to me, ‘Kirsten, I’m going to watch this, and if it doesn’t get better in the next six months, I’m with you next time,’ ” she said at a news conference.
“We will not be stopped. Look, I’ve been here long enough to see how sometimes change is painful and slow. But it happens. I’ve seen it. And we will see it again,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Pentagon leaders vigorously opposed the measure, as did former prosecutors and military veterans in the Senate who argued that commanders should have more responsibility, not less, for the conduct of the men and women they lead in war and peacetime.
“We can’t let the commanders walk away,” insisted Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who bemoaned the tenor of a policy debate that pitted her against fellow Democrat Gillibrand.
Backers of the measure insisted that piecemeal reforms have had only a limited impact on a problem that even the military has called an epidemic. Survey results have suggested that some 26,000 people, mostly women, may have been sexually assaulted in the most recent accounting, with thousands unwilling to come forward for fear of inaction or retribution.
“The people who don’t trust the chain of the command are the victims,” Gillibrand said.
After blocking Gillibrand’s bill, the Senate moved toward overwhelming passage of a measure sponsored by McCaskill and two Republican senators – Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska. That bill would eliminate the “good soldier defense” – that a service member’s character and military performance can be used in a case – unless it is directly connected to the allegation. And it would allow sexual assault victims to challenge their discharges or separation from service.
The bill also calls for a civilian service secretary review if a prosecutor and commander disagree over whether to litigate a case.
The Senate voted 100-0 to move ahead on that bill. A vote on passage is scheduled for Monday.