- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2014

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday blocked a bill that would have stripped senior military commanders of their authority to prosecute rapes and other serious offenses, capping an emotional, nearly yearlong fight over how best to curb sexual assault in the ranks.

The vote was 55-45, short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Defeated but unbowed, the senator received hugs from Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., after the vote.

The Pentagon’s leadership vigorously opposed the measure, arguing that officers should have more responsibility, not less, for the conduct of the men and women they lead.

Proponents of the bill insisted that far-reaching changes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice are necessary to curb a scourge of rapes and sexual assaults.

Gillibrand’s effort bitterly divided the Senate in a battle that smashed conventional lines on gender and political party.

Conservative Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky backed her effort, while the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, opposed the measure.

Although the vote sent the bill back to the Senate calendar, it was unlikely to be the final word. Gillibrand was expected to pursue the issue this spring when the Armed Services Committee begins work on a sweeping defense policy bill for the 2015 fiscal year.

“The people who don’t trust the chain of the command are the victims,” Gillibrand told her colleagues during the Senate debate.

One by one, proponents and opponents of her bill stood on the Senate floor and passionately argued based on personal experiences, growing frustration with what they dismissed as fixes around the edges and horrific stories from the ranks.

“The current system is failing the men and women in uniform,” said one of the Senate’s newest members, John Walsh, D-Mont., who spent 33 years in the Montana National Guard and is the first Iraq War veteran in the body. “We have moved too slowly.”

Countering that argument was Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a West Point graduate who served in the 82nd Airborne Division as an infantry platoon leader and company commander.

Reed said stripping commanders of the authority to discipline the troops would be “detrimental to the effectiveness of the force and common goal to reduce sexual assault.”

The issue bitterly divided the Senate’s 20 female members.

“How many more victims are required to suffer before we act?” asked Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a backer of Gillibrand’s effort. “How many more lives must be ruined before we act?”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a vehement opponent of the bill and a former prosecutor, said more cases are going to trial over the objections of prosecutors as commanders are deciding to press ahead with charges.

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