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Defense deal minted, but Gillibrand sexual assault amendment dropped

Lawmakers announced a sweeping agreement Monday to pass a long-awaited authorization bill for the Defense Department before the end of the year, but a proposed amendment to curb military sexual assault didn’t make the cut.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., had hoped to use the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) -- a must-pass bill that Congress has approved every year for the past five decades -- as a vehicle to advance her proposal to remove sexual assault prosecutions from the military chain of command.

Instead, the pact announced Monday would ease passage of the NDAA before both chambers adjourn for the year, but no additional amendments -- including Gillibrand’s -- can be added.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin told reporters it came down to timing. “The reality is that the House of Representatives is going to adjourn on Friday. There is no way to get a defense bill passed this year except the way we are proposing."

Gillibrand’s plan had garnered support from unlikely allies, Democrats and conservative Republicans alike. A spokeswoman says that she will continue to work towards getting a vote on her proposal as a stand-alone measure.

"We are confident that we will get a vote. Regardless of what happens, the senator will not go away, she will keep fighting to protect our brave men and women in uniform and to strengthen our military," said Bethany Lesser, a Gillibrand spokeswoman.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., proposed an alternative measure that would have prevented commanders from overturning jury convictions of sexual assault, but would not have stripped them of decision-making power on the prosecution of cases.

As it stands, the NDAA deal would codify many of the McCaskill-backed reforms.

In a joint statement, McCaskill and Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire praised the defense bill agreement, adding that they are “frustrated” that additional proposals won’t be included.

“While we’re frustrated that votes on additional measures did not occur, these historic reforms—including installing civilian review over prosecutorial decisions, barring commanders from changing jury verdicts, assigning victims their own legal counsel, criminalizing retaliation against victims, and mandating dishonorable discharge for convicted sex offenders—will mean a new day for justice for American servicemembers,” they wrote. “And we’re going to work as hard as we can to enact these critical reforms into law.”