Senate rejects Gillibrand bill on sexual assaults in military

WASHINGTON -- An ambitious proposal to stem the rising number of sexual assaults in the military was rejected Thursday after senators from both parties balked at limiting the role of commanding officers in deciding whether to prosecute.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) pushed the issue to prominence this session, arguing on behalf of victims within the military ranks. Many have testified that they feared retaliation if they took assault allegations up the chain of command. Her bill would have shifted investigations to military prosecutors.

Instead senators advanced a competing bill sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who argued on behalf of military brass that removing commanders from investigations would infringe on their ability to fully control troops. Her measure would allow alleged victims to choose whether commanders or military prosecutors would investigate.

The debate produced an emotional -- and rare -- scene Thursday in the Senate, as two of the chamber's top female members argued over the best way to curb the alarming rise in military sexual assaults.

"Listen to the victims," said Gillibrand, reading from their often wrenching stories of fear and retaliation. "The people who do not trust the chain of command are the victims."

But McCaskill, a former prosecutor, relied on a long line of defense hawks in the Senate, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), to make the case.

Congress late last year instituted changes to the military's system for reporting and investigating sexual assaults after the Pentagon reported a 35% increase in cases in recent years. The reforms were included in an annual defense bill signed into law.

"When the sun sets today, this body will have passed 35 major reforms in just a year – making the military the most victim-friendly organization in the world," McCaskill said.

Gillibrand, her voice rising, shot back that the changes were "not even close" to resolving the problem. An estimated 26,000 members of the military -- men and women -- are believed to have been sexually assaulted in 2012, according to the Pentagon. A fraction of those cases are prosecuted, reports show.

"This is not an opportunity to congratulate ourselves," she said.

Both proposals needed to receive a 60-vote threshold to clear the filibuster hurdle.

Gillibrand's measure was defeated, 55 to 45, with 43 Democrats, 11 Republicans and one independent in support.

Senators voted, 100 to 0, to advance McCaskill's measure. A final vote is scheduled for Monday. Despite that bipartisan backing, chances for action in the Republican-controlled House remain slim.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday that the change made last year strikes "the right balance."

"I don't frankly see any reason at this point for any further action to be taken," Boehner said.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Twitter: @lisamascaroinDC