- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2014

The Senate on Monday approved a bill giving victims of sexual assault in the military more say in how the crimes are prosecuted, building on other revisions last year as Congress pushes to reform a system all sides acknowledge is broken.

The plan, which passed 97-0, would give purported victims some say in whether the case is tried in military or civilian court, would prevent someone’s past good behavior from being used as a defense in sexual-assault charges, and would let troops grade their commanders on how well the command climate handles reports of sexual assault.

“So few things pass around this body unanimously, but it shows the bipartisan commitment we have to stop this scourge of sexual assault,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, who worked on the bill with Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat.

But the bill is likely to face a challenge getting through the House, where Speaker John A. Boehner said last week he first wants to see whether the changes Congress already adopted in December make a difference.

“The House and Senate have both acted on this issue, and I frankly think the agreement that was struck in the House on the defense-authorization bill strikes the right balance,” he told reporters last week. “I don’t frankly see any reason at this point for any further action to be taken.”

After a spate of reports suggesting sexual assaults and rapes in the military go unreported or aren’t prosecuted, Congress has pushed for changes.

But the Associated Press reported Monday that that push may have skewed the trial of an Army general who is facing a court martial on sexual-assault charges. The judge in the trial said officials at Fort Bragg in North Carolina appear to have unlawfully rejected a plea deal with Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair after feeling pressure from Congress to send a message about sex crimes.

Under the military code of justice, the decision was supposed to be decided solely on the evidence, not its broader political implications, The Associated Press reported.

Congress last year took initial steps to try to fix the system, passing a law that strips commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, requires mandatory dishonorable discharge for those convicted of sex assault, gives victims lawyers, and criminalizes retaliation against someone who reports an attack.

Ms. McCaskill, the new bill’s chief author, said she will try to have the House put her bill on the “fast track” to passage, but said it could also be rolled into the annual defense-policy bill, which will come later this year. Last week, Ms. McCaskill led opposition to a broader proposal by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, that would have stripped military commanders of their ability to prosecute sexual assaults, leaving the decision to an independent military lawyer. That bill was killed Thursday by a filibuster.

Mrs. Gillibrand has promised to try again, and said she’ll also work on other, smaller reforms.

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