The Washington Post

Senate rejects further revamp of how Pentagon handles sex assault

The Senate rejected a controversial proposal Thursday to remove military commanders from decisions on whether to prosecute major crimes in the ranks as the concerns of Pentagon leaders trumped calls from veterans groups to dramatically overhaul how the Defense Department handles assault and rape cases.

[posttv url="" ]


Congress has already voted to revamp the military’s legal system by ending the statute of limitations on assault and rape cases, making it a crime to retaliate against victims who report assaults and requiring the dishonorable discharge or dismissal of anyone convicted of sexual assault or rape.

But on Thursday senators rejected a plan by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would go further by taking away from military commanders the power to refer serious crimes to courts-martial. The decision would shift instead to professional military trial lawyers operating outside the chain of command.

The proposal fell five votes short of the 60 votes necessary to clear a procedural hurdle and proceed to a final vote. In a reflection of the complexity of the issue, 10 Democrats voted against Gillibrand's plan, while 11 Republicans -- including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) -- joined her in voting to proceed.

A separate, more modest proposal by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), cleared a procedural vote and is expected to be approved Monday night. Her plan would eliminate the “good soldier” defense from military evidence rules unless a defendant’s character is directly tied to the alleged crime.

Gillibrand chairs a Senate Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel and has spent most of the past year lobbying colleagues while butting heads with Pentagon officials who strongly oppose her proposal. Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, has publicly expressed concerns with the cost of setting up a new independent office, a move they estimate could cost about $113 million annually to employ 600 attorneys and staff.

Gillibrand has dismissed those concerns.

"If they need to staff up and lawyer up I'm sure they can do it," she said in a recent interview. "You can never tell me that the Department of Defense can't marshal the resources they need to complete a mission. And if the mission is prosecute more rapists, I'm certain they can accomplish that mission."

Aides had said for weeks that 54 colleagues supported her bill and suggested that a handful more planned to vote with her Thursday. But Gillibrand had declined to predict victory in the days before the vote.

McCaskill has been a lead critic of Gillibrand’s bill, saying it would go too far and adversely affect a commander’s ability the military command structure. And she has doubted for months that Gillibrand's proposal will ever pass.

"If you want more prosecutions, and if you want to hold the commanders accountable, I think it's a dramatic mistake to allow the commanders to walk away and I think it's a dramatic mistake to say a lawyer half a continent away is going to make the call and that somehow is going to protect this victim more from retaliation and result in more cases going to court," McCaskill said in a recent interview.

Even if Gillibrand's proposal had passed the Senate, the issue of more aggressively combating rape and assault in the military has a less certain future in the GOP-controlled House.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The Republicans debated Saturday night. The New Hampshire primary is Feb. 9. Get caught up on the race.
Highlights from Saturday's GOP debate
Except for an eminent domain attack from Bush, Trump largely avoided strikes from other candidates.

Christie went after Rubio for never having been a chief executive and for relying on talking points.

Carson tried to answer a question on Obamacare by lamenting that he hadn't been asked an earlier question about North Korea.
The GOP debate in 3 minutes
Play Video
We have all donors in the audience. And the reason they're booing me? I don't want their money!
Donald Trump, after the debate crowd at St. Anselm's College booed him for telling Jeb Bush to be "quiet."
Play Video
New Hampshire polling averages
Donald Trump holds a commanding lead in the next state to vote, but Marco Rubio has recently seen a jump in his support, according to polls.
New Hampshire polling averages
A victory in New Hampshire revitalized Hillary Clinton's demoralized campaign in 2008. But this time, she's trailing Bernie Sanders, from neighboring Vermont. She's planning to head Sunday to Flint, Mich., where a cost-saving decision led to poisonous levels of lead in the water of the poor, heavily black, rust-belt city. 
55% 38%
Upcoming debates
Feb. 11: Democratic debate

on PBS, in Wisconsin

Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

Campaign 2016
State of the race

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.