WASHINGTON — A yearlong congressional debate over how to handle sexual assault cases in the military reached a turning point Thursday when the Senate rejected a controversial proposal to have military lawyers rather than commanders make decisions on whether to prosecute such cases.
The bill's author, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, argued passionately that reforms enacted by Congress late last year "aren't even close'' to a solution because "the people who do not trust the chain of command are the victims.''
Before Thursday's vote, 55 senators had voiced support for Gillibrand's Military Justice Improvement Act, enough for final passage but five votes short of the 60 needed for a preliminary motion to overcome Thursday's filibuster. The tally to move the bill forward was 55-45.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who led the opposition to Gillibrand's bill, said, "When the sun sets today, this body will have passed 35 reforms'' to the military's handling of sexual assault cases.
McCaskill said she and Gillibrand agreed on all the reforms except one.
Opponents of Gillibrand's bill said it would be unworkable to have prosecutors in the Judge Advocate General's office decide whether to prosecute sexual assault cases.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wondered what would happen if a sexual assault case occurred among combat troops in Afghanistan.
"We'd have to find some way to fly a lawyer in,'' he said.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of 17 women senators who supported Gillibrand's bill, noted that the Senate Armed Services Committee has spent at least 10 years considering the issue.
"How many more victims are required to suffer before we take action?'' she asked. "We need to encourage more reporting, and that's what Sen. Gillibrand's bill will accomplish."
Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa agreed, saying, "We are past the point of tinkering, tinkering with the current system,'' adding, "enough is enough.''
Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who opposed Gillibrand's proposal, said it would require new assignments for military lawyers, but wouldn't provide for hiring more attorneys.
The House and Senate agreed on significant reforms to the Pentagon's sexual assault policies late last year as part of a fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill, but Gillibrand didn't get a floor vote on her controversial proposal.
Recently enacted reforms include a requirement that alleged sexual assault victims be assigned their own independent lawyer, a prohibition against commanders overturning jury decisions on major offenses, reassignment of commanders accused of sexual assault, and a minimum sentence of dishonorable discharge for any sexual assault conviction.
The delay helped New York's junior senator build support for her bill. Over the last month, Democratic Sen. John Walsh of Montana and Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas became the 54th and 55th senators to support the measure.
Walsh announced his support in December while still serving as lieutenant governor of Montana. He was sworn in as a senator early last month to fill the seat vacated by Max Baucus, who left Congress to become ambassador to China.
McCaskill, along with Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska offered a competing sexual assault bill that will come up for a final vote on Monday. On Thursday, the Senate voted to move ahead with the proposal.
McCaskill's measure would eliminate the "good soldier" defense in deciding whether to prosecute most cases, clarify that the law covering prosecution of sexual assault cases applies to military academies, and require special attorneys to advise victims whether it would be better to have a particular case prosecuted in a military or a civilian court.