Hours after voting down a military sexual assault bill that reduces military commanders' authority over cases in their chains of command, the Senate ended debate and now plans to vote on a second sexual assault bill sponsored by two prominent female senators.
The Victims Protection Act of 2013 was filed by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. It differs from the bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in it does not affect the commander's standing in the prosecution of cases.
Instead, it addresses the sorts of defense a service member can present in a sexual assault case. The Victims Protection Act would remove the so-called "good soldier defense," which has allowed defendants to use "good military character" as a consideration in their favor. It also requires special counsels to advise victims of the advantages and disadvantages of a case being prosecuted in the military or civilian justice systems, and gives victims a say in the venue.
Ayotte and McCaskill's bill will also allow victims to challenge their discharge or separation from the military, and gives the prosecutor more of a role in advising commanders on going to court-martial with a sexual assault case.
Military sexual assault drew national headlines about one year ago after 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, according to the Pentagon.
In many ways, Gillibrand has led the charge in the Senate to address the way the military prosecutes sexual assault and has fought the Pentagon to alter the influence commanders have in deciding what cases are brought to court-martial. However, her bill failed to gain the necessary support Thursday.
"I always hoped we could do the right thing here, and deliver a military justice system that is free from bias and conflict of interest, a military justice system that is worthy of the brave men and women who fight for us," she said in a statement afterward.
She called the McCaskill-Ayotte bill a good step in standing up for victims and holding offenders accountable. However, she said it does not go far enough.
"We know the deck is stacked against victims of sexual assault in the military, and today, we saw the same in the halls of Congress," she said.
Ayotte defended her bill, saying it does hold commanders accountable.
"We need to hold the commanders more accountable here, we cannot allow them off the hook," she said. "If we take them out of this equation, then there will be less accountability. We want the chain of command to be held more accountable."
While on the Senate floor, Ayotte dismissed arguments made by Gillibrand and others that the U.S. military should remove the commander's role in prosecutions because allies such as Canada, Britain and Israel have done so.
"Where is the evidence that more cases would be prosecuted, more victims would come forward?" she asked. "There's no evidence of that."
McCaskill and Ayotte both previously backed Gillibrand's legislation, but changed their minds after a special panel of experts concluded the commander was important to the process and ensured cases went to court even when a military prosecutor thought the case would not hold up.
Based on the findings of the panel, taking the commander out of the process does not improve the situation for victims, Ayotte said. Members of the Response Systems Panel included former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, D-N.Y.; Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime; and former Federal District Judge Barbara Jones, who wrote the judicial opinion striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.
After the failed vote on Gillibrand's bill, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., asked that the Senate vote on the competing bill Monday at 5:30 p.m.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at Bryant.Jordan@monster.com.