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Senators Seen Narrowing Military Sex Assault Bill to Win Support

Female senators backing a bill to remove sex-assault cases from the U.S. military chain of command say they may limit their proposal to just rape and sex crimes to win support before a showdown vote as early as this week.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat leading the effort, said today her proposal to give sex-assault cases to independent military prosecutors may be scaled back to get the 60 votes needed to amend a pending defense authorization bill. The current plan would strip commanders of a role in any crime punishable by a year or more of confinement.

“We prefer our bill in its original form, but there is such an egregious issue in regard to sexual assault and rape,” Gillibrand, who with Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California has pushed the measure for months, said after a closed-door meeting of Senate Democrats. “So if we need to take a first step to begin to see real reform and transparency and accountability in the military justice system, this is an excellent first step.”

The proposal restricting commanders’ prosecution authority has emerged as the central issue in a debate sparked by a Defense Department survey, which estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assaults last year, compared with 2,949 victims identified in criminal reports.

Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee this year joined Pentagon officials in rejecting a proposal to investigate sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command, although it approved a change in the handling of such cases.

‘Fix It’

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said today he’d very quickly announce his plans for legislation dealing with the issue. He said he’s meeting with Pentagon officials during the next two days.

“Sexual assault in the military is a significant problem and it has not been fixed,” Reid told reporters at the Capitol. “What we’re trying to do with this legislation is fix it.”

With a record 20 women in the Senate, a bipartisan group this year is pushing for change, setting up a showdown with the male leaders of the Pentagon.

The group has run into resistance from some allies. Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, opposes independent prosecutors for sexual-assault cases and offered a plan approved by his committee that would keep sex-assault prosecutions with commanders while requiring a higher-level review of any officer’s decision not to prosecute.

McCaskill, Gillibrand

Not all the women in the Senate back Gillibrand’s approach. Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri sided with Levin’s bill, which also would make it a crime to retaliate against victims who report sexual assaults.

At a hearing last summer, military officers including Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, criticized the proposal to restrict commanders’ prosecution authority. He said military discipline would be hurt if commanding officers didn’t handle the cases.

Gillibrand reacted sharply.

“Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force,” she told the officers. “Not every single commander believes what a sexual assault is. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together.”

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