Senate Blocks Military Sexual Assault Reforms

The Senate has blocked a bill introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, which had proposed revisions to military procedures for punishing and preventing sexual assault.

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After months of anticipation, the Senate has rejected a proposal to fundamentally change the way the military prosecutes sexual assault. Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York needed 60 votes for a bill that would give military prosecutors, rather than commanders, final say over which sexual assault cases to prosecute. The legislation got 55 votes today.

With us now is NPR's congressional reporter Ailsa Chang to talk about the fight around Gillibrand's legislation. And, Ailsa, first, let's explain what this proposal would have done. Obviously, it's stirred up intense emotions on the Hill for nearly a year now.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: It has, and that's because this bill would have completely transformed the military justice system, not just for sexual assault but for all serious crimes, like homicide or robbery. What the bill would have done is give military prosecutors final authority in deciding which cases can go forward. Right now, that final authority rests with commanders. But what Gillibrand and her supporters have been contending is that those commanders can't do enough to address sexual assault.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: I always hoped we could do the right thing here to deliver a military justice that is free from bias and conflicts of interest, a military justice system that is worthy of the brave men and women who fight for us.

CORNISH: But talk us through more of her argument here. I mean, why would military prosecutors be able to do more than commanders?

CHANG: Well, her argument was basically the reason the military justice system is broken is because so few victims are willing to report sexual assault. There was some recent data from the Pentagon suggesting as many as 26,000 sexual assaults happened in 2012 and only 3,300 victims reported. And a lot of lawmakers saw that and decided, well, if you remove commanders from the process, maybe more victims will report.

Here's how Republic Rand Paul of Kentucky put it.

SEN. RAND PAUL: To me, it's as simple as, should you have to report your assault to your boss? That's what we're talking about. What if your boss goes drinking with the person who assaulted you, who's friends with them? Wouldn't we want to make the person you complained to completely outside the chain of command?

CORNISH: Ailsa, there was intense pushback on this idea from the Pentagon and other lawmakers.

CHANG: Yeah, there was. I mean, the first argument from them was, this just won't work. Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who's been the woman on the other side of this fight, says there's no guarantee that prosecutors will be more zealous than commanders about pushing ahead with these cases.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL: It is clear that right now, we have more cases going to court marshal over the objections of prosecutors than the objections of commanders.

CHANG: And then there was this other argument that basically boiled down to the idea of good order and discipline. And that is if commanders no longer have the responsibility to call the shots in this very important area, cohesion in the military would suffer. And those commanders then wouldn't be able to help change the culture.

You know, they say, think back to the 1940s and '50s when the military was trying to racially integrate or, more recently, when it was trying to end don't ask, don't tell. It was the power of the commanders to initiate courts marshal that allowed them to effect change. At least that's the argument now.

CORNISH: Now, even though today's proposal failed, Congress has just passed a number of reforms. Tell us about them.

CHANG: Yeah. This whole fight over Gillibrand's bill kind of eclipsed some far-reaching reforms that did pass last December. Now, commanders can no longer overturn jury convictions. Sexual assault victims must be provided with their own legal counsel. That's actually a huge difference between the military justice system now and the civilian system. And anyone convicted of sexual assault will get a dishonorable discharge at a minimum.

CORNISH: NPR congressional reporter Ailsa Chang. Thanks, Ailsa.

CHANG: You're welcome.

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