The Senate agreed Thursday to begin debating a proposal to better protect victims of sexual assault in the military, but rejected broader changes that would have turned prosecution decisions over to an independent military lawyer.
The competing votes were steeped in political implications, with those who blocked the broader changes saying they felt they were being accused of defending rape.
The votes could even end up playing a role in the 2016 presidential race, with some potential Republican candidates voting for the broader changes, which would have stripped military commanders of their ability to decide whether sexual-assault cases should be prosecuted.
"People wanting to run for president on our side, I will remind you of this vote. You want to be commander-in-chief? You told me a lot today about who you are as a commander-in-chief candidate," Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, told reporters after the vote. "You were willing to fire every commander in the military for reasons I don't quite understand."
The broader proposal, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, would have taken prosecution decisions from military commanders and turned them over to an independent authority outside the chain of command. Mrs. Gillibrand's supporters said the legislation would have cut down on favoritism or retaliation by leaving the decision to impartial military lawyers.
But her proposal fell five votes short of the 60 votes needed to clear a filibuster lead by Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat.
Instead, the Senate voted to move ahead with Ms. McCaskill's own proposal, which would give alleged victims some say in whether their case is tried in military or civilian court, and prevent someone's past good behavior from being used as a defense in sexual-assault charges.
The Senate voted unanimously to head off a filibuster, setting up a final vote for Monday.
Ms. McCaskill argued that taking prosecutorial discretion away from commanders would actually make the system worse and lead to fewer cases coming to trial. In this view, she went against many Democratic senators, including all of the other women in her caucus.
She said she didn't mind the harshly worded advertisements or clashes with her colleagues because she is confident that she was right.
"I couldn't have slept at night if I had folded on this," she told reporters.
The McCaskill bill will build on several reforms already made law by last year's defense-policy bill.
Mrs. Gillibrand said she may try again later. She said many senators who voted against her proposal said they were taking a wait-and-see approach to changes made in December, and that if there isn't an improvement, she hoped her proposal would get another chance.
Ms. McCaskill said she thought those who voted for the Gillibrand proposal either didn't understand the implications or just had a fundamentally different idea of how the military justice system should work. Mr. Graham, however, said some Republicans told him they voted for the more sweeping reforms to appear supportive of women in a party that often angers female voters.
"I've heard people on my side say, 'I don't want to get on the wrong side of the war on women,'" he said. "I've heard that several times."
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky — both potential presidential contenders in 2016 — voted for Mrs. Gillibrand's proposal.
Mr. Cruz said he made his decision to support the Gillibrand plan as a father thinking about how he would want the military justice system to work if his two young daughters decided to join the military some day.
"I tried to approach this issue from the perspective of a dad," he told reporters. "Heidi and I have two little girls, and I spent a lot of time in those hearings thinking about, they're right now 3 and 5, but thinking about if 20 years from now, Caroline or Catherine chooses to serve. What are the rules that I'd want in place for my little girls?"
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