The U.S. Senate blocked a bill Thursday that would have stripped senior military commanders of their authority to prosecute rapes and other serious offenses. Capping an emotional, nearly yearlong fight over how best to curb sexual assault in the ranks, the Senate voted 55-45, five votes short of the 60 needed to move ahead on the legislation.
Proponents of the bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., insisted that far-reaching changes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice were necessary to curb rapes and sexual assaults. However, the Pentagon’s leadership vigorously opposed the measure, arguing that officers should have more responsibility, not less, for the conduct of the men and women they lead.
Under Gillibrand’s proposal, commanders would no longer be able to decide whether or not to take serious crimes to courts-martial. Instead, seasoned military trial lawyers who have prosecutorial experience would take over, operating out of a newly established office that was independent of the chain of command.
Gillibrand’s effort bitterly divided the Senate in a battle that crossed conventional lines of gender and political party. Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky backed her effort, while the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., opposed the measure.
Gillibrand argued the legislation would spark the cultural shift needed to create a climate in which victims have the confidence to step forward and report sex crimes without fear of retaliation.
“The people who don't trust the chain of the command are the victims,” Gillibrand told her colleagues during the Senate debate.
The vote came amid a flurry of high-profile sexual assault cases in the military. Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair today pleaded guilty to three charges related to claims that he assaulted a female captain nearly 20 years younger than him. The same day, a senior defense official said the Army was investigating allegations against an officer who trains military prosecutors who handle sexual and physical abuse cases.
The Defense Department opposes Gillibrand’s plan, as do key members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
McCaskill, a former prosecutor, said more cases are going to trial over the objections of prosecutors as commanders are deciding to press ahead with charges.
“We can't let the commanders walk away,” McCaskill said.
Formally known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the Defense Department’s system is completely separate from the civilian courts. Within the military’s code, commanders are vested with substantial authority to decide when and how to deal with crimes committed by service members.
That power to punish or pardon has been a principal tenet of military law dating back more than two centuries. It’s rooted in the military’s conviction that commanders must have the ability to discipline the troops they lead in peacetime and war. Undercutting that role, top Defense Department officials have warned, would send a message of waning faith in the officer corps, which could undermine the efficiency and effectiveness of the armed forces.
The vote sent the bill back to the Senate calendar, but it was unlikely to be the final word. Gillibrand is expected to pursue the issue this spring when the Armed Services Committee begins work on a sweeping defense policy bill for the 2015 fiscal year.