The Senate began debate Wednesday on a major overhaul of the military justice system strongly opposed by the Defense Department that would take the prosecution of sexual assault cases and other serious crimes out of the chain of command.
The Military Justice Improvement Act, offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., as an amendment to the defense spending authorization, has divided the Senate but not along the usual partisan lines.
Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., have backed Gillibrand while Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., supported a competing proposal that would keep sexual assault cases within the chain of command while holding commanders more accountable.
The immediate hurdle for Gillibrand was in rounding up the filibuster-proof 60 votes needed to cut off debate and get an up or down final vote. She picked up vital support Tuesday with the announcement by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that he would back the bill.
"I don't want commanders to be bystanders" on military justice, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said in the floor debate in opposing Gillibrand's bill to strip commanders of their authority to refer cases to courts martial and overturn convictions.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, said justice for sexual assault victims in the military can only be achieved by having commanders more involved and "not by excluding them from this critical aspect of military life."
Reed's views were in line with those of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has vowed zero tolerance for sexual assaults in the ranks while arguing for reform to be carried out through the existing chain of command.
However, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. charged that the increasing incidents of sexual assault in the military showed that the system was incapable of reforming itself.
"The policies of the last couple of decades simply haven't worked," Wyden said.
Although senior Defense officials have lined up against the Gillibrand bill, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., predicted that "commanders will thank the Senate for taking these decisions out of their hands" if the Gillibrand bill became law.
The alternative bill offered by Sen. McCaskill and others would allow commanders to retain their current authority to refer cases to courts martial but would also prevent them from overturning convictions and add more layers of review for their actions.
The issue of sexual assault in the military gained national attention last spring when the Pentagon released a study estimating that 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact had occurred in 2012, an increase of more than 30 percent since 2010. About 3,000 cases of sexual assault were reported in the military in 2012, and 300 were prosecuted, the Pentagon said.
"The bottom line is really simple," Gillibrand said last week. "The current system oriented around the chain of command has been producing horrible results."