What's Blocking Bill That Would Reform Military Justice System Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has enough bipartisan support to approve legislation to transform how major criminal cases are handled for servicemembers. But hurdles remain.

The Effort To Reform The U.S. Military's Justice System Faces A New Fight

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NOEL KING, HOST:

In the military, commanders and not prosecutors pick which serious criminal cases will go to trial. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand says that system does not work. She now has bipartisan support for legislation that would change how criminal cases are handled for service members. But one Democrat is standing in her way. Here's NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Night after night last week, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand took to the Senate floor to ask for passage of her bill to reform the military's criminal justice system.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: I rise today...

I rise tonight to once again...

I rise on behalf of the supporters of this bill.

GRISALES: And night after night, her Democratic colleague who chairs the Armed Services Committee, Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, has said no.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JACK REED: I would object.

I object.

Reserving my right to object for the...

GRISALES: It's the latest chapter in a battle that has been years in the making. Since 2013, Gillibrand has sponsored legislation to remove criminal cases such as sexual assault from the chain of command and put them in the hands of trained military prosecutors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GILLIBRAND: I asked for a vote in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, and I was denied every single time.

GRISALES: But this year, Gillibrand joined forces with Iowa Republican Joni Ernst. Ernst is a sexual assault survivor herself before she later became a veteran combat company commander in Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONI ERNST: It is time we take new action to stop these attacks, to bring justice for the victims and to prevent these actions going forward.

GRISALES: Now, the bill has more than 60 co-sponsors, a majority that could approve the plan on the Senate floor today. Ernst was a former holdout on the bill who is now fed up with the military's climbing criminal caseload.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERNST: I was torn. But we have not seen improvement.

GRISALES: Reed wants the legislation put through the committee process for this year's defense bill, which would start later this summer. And the top Republican on the panel overseeing the military agrees.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM INHOFE: When it comes to important issues like this, we should not rush.

GRISALES: That's Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe, a longtime opponent of the proposal. Some skeptics have said other serious crimes, such as murder and manslaughter, should be kept in the chain of command. But supporters of this bill say that would be a move to water it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK GRASSLEY: Whether it's in the military or whether it's outside the military, a crime is a crime, and it ought to be punished.

GRISALES: That's Iowa GOP Senator Chuck Grassley, who has co-sponsored the legislation with Gillibrand since it was first introduced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRASSLEY: We've been waiting almost a decade. There's no need to wait any longer.

GRISALES: The bill has made for some strange bedfellows, drawing co-sponsors from Vermont independent Bernie Sanders to Texas Republican Ted Cruz and Kentucky GOP Senator Rand Paul to Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Gillibrand, who has served on the Armed Services Committee for a decade, has signaled she's nowhere near giving up and will try on the Senate floor again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GILLIBRAND: How long must our service members wait for real reform? How long must they wait for a criminal justice system that is worthy of their sacrifice?

GRISALES: After years of resistance, top military leaders are now open to some changes to the system. But Gillibrand still has to convince her Democratic colleague Reed and other influential lawmakers to join forces on broader reforms.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "LATE BLOOMER")

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