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“We can’t let the commanders walk away,” McCaskill said.

The military has struggled increasingly in recent years with the sexual assault issue. The Pentagon estimated that 26,000 members of the military may have been sexually assaulted in 2012, the most recent numbers available, though thousands were afraid to come forward for fear of inaction or retribution.

After blocking Gillibrand’s bill, the Senate moved toward overwhelmingly 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 solider defense” in cases unless it is directly connected to the crime. 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.

Three months ago, Congress cleared and President Barack Obama signed a defense policy bill that included several changes to military law, including stripping commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions and criminalizing retaliation against victims who come forward about sexual assaults.

Last June, members of the SenateArmed Services Committee, especially Gillibrand and McCaskill, grilled the Joint Chiefs of Staff about whether the military’s mostly male leadership understands differences between relatively minor sexual offenses and serious crimes that deserve swift and decisive justice.

“Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force. Not every single commander believes what a sexual assault is. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together,” Gillibrand said.

The Pentagon came under pressure last month to disclose more information about how sexual assault cases are adjudicated following an Associated Press investigation that found a pattern of inconsistent judgments and light penalties for sexual assaults at U.S. bases in Japan.

Gillibrand, who chairs the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee, called on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a Feb. 10 letter to turn over case information from four major U.S. bases: Fort Hood in Texas, Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in California and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Such records would shed more light on how military commanders make decisions about courts-martial and punishments in sexual assault cases and whether the inconsistent judgments seen in Japan are more widespread.

The AP’s investigation, which was based on hundreds of internal military documents, found that what appeared to be strong cases were often reduced to lesser charges. Suspects were unlikely to serve time even when military authorities agreed a crime had been committed. In two rape cases, commanders overruled recommendations to court-martial the accused and dropped the charges instead.