The Senate on Thursday rejected legislation that would have stripped military commanders of the power to prosecute sexual assaults and other major crimes.
The bill, proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., had the support of 55 of the chamber’s 100 members, including 10 Republicans. But it was blocked by fellow Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri and other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, who used procedural tactics to prevent an up-or-down vote on the measure.
The Senate instead moved unanimously toward approval of an alternative bill championed by McCaskill that would preserve commanders’ authority to convene courts-martial but give victims a formal say in whether their cases go before military or civilian courts. That version awaits final passage next week.
“I know this has been tough for everyone,” said McCaskill, a former prosecutor, as two hours of tense debate drew to a close Thursday. “But I stand here with years of experience of holding hands and crying with victims, knowing that what we have done is the right thing for victims and the right thing for our military.”
The hard-fought policy battle between two influential female senators came down to just a handful of votes, with Gillibrand’s bill falling five short of the necessary 60-vote threshold.
Although she lost this round to a technicality, Gillibrand demonstrated she has the support she needs to keep her vision for change alive, said Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School.
“It’s outrageous that a member of the same party would basically threaten a filibuster,” Fidell said of McCaskill.
“I think Senator Gillibrand has the high moral ground, and I believe she will have the high political ground before you know it,” he said. “In practical terms, this bill will live to fight another day.”
Gillibrand and her allies argued during debate Thursday that the only way to restore trust in the military justice system was to allow independent prosecutors _ not commanders _ to decide whether a case should go to trial.
“It is like being raped by your brother and having your father decide the case,” Gillibrand said. “That is the perception of the victims.”