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Overhaul to address military sexual assaults risks being nixed from defense bill

Sen. Gillibrand is pushing for the measure to be included in a bill that the Senate is aiming to pass before the end of the year.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., walks in the Capitol on July 21, 2021.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., walks in the Capitol on July 21, 2021.Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Efforts to enact the most comprehensive overhaul of the military justice system in decades intended to address the handling of sexual assaults could be cut from a defense bill as Congress scrambles to finish the legislation before year end.

The must-pass national defense bill, massive legislation that sets defense policy for the year known as the NDAA, is stalled in the Senate and House and Senate negotiators are working behind the scenes to reach agreement. 

At risk of being nixed is a measure co-authored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, that would transform the military justice system by taking sexual assault and other serious crimes like murder and aggravated assault out of the chain of command to be investigated by independent prosecutors. 

Gillibrand and 65 members of the House and the Senate in a letter urged the Senate and House Armed Services committee chairmen — Democrats Rep. Adam Smith and Sen. Jack Reed — and top Republicans — Rep. Mike Rogers and Sen. James Inhofe — to keep the measure in the final bill. 

The top two senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Reed and Inhofe, are opposed to the measure and the Pentagon does not fully back it. 

“The only way it does not become law in the NDAA is if a handful of powerful men rip it out behind closed doors to the disservice of our active duty services members,” Gillibrand said in a statement to NBC News. “It is supported by Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer as well as virtually every major veterans service organization in America.”

The Senate is attempting to pass the NDAA but it is stalled after Republicans blocked the measure this week, demanding more votes on amendments and also attempting to gum up the Senate to prevent Democrats from advancing their unrelated $1.7 trillion Build Back Better plan. 

“The Republican leadership has decided that apparently that they don’t wanna move to the NDAA at all, and I think it’s just part of an effort to slow everything down. That I get, I’ve seen it before, but I’ve never seen it done with a defense bill, so I’m very troubled with that,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., one of the signatories of the letter, said. 

The proposal to overhaul the military justice system, which as a standalone bill has 66 co-sponsors in the Senate and more than 150 in the House, has been years in the making and has gained the most support this year after the Pentagon acknowledged that sexual harassment has not decreased in the military. 

“Sexual assault in the military is a serious concern and demands a real solution, not a watered-down provision slipped in the final bill behind closed doors. Retaining the full provision will ensure that the will of this strong majority of members is respected. This provision is the only reform that will provide true independence for prosecutors in the military justice system and is essential to ensure that victims, accused, and the public all have full faith and confidence in the military justice process,” the 44 senators and 22 House members wrote in the letter. 

 The legislation is an effort to combat an ongoing surge in sexual assault complaints in the military in recent years. More than 20,000 service members said they were sexually assaulted in the military in 2018, according to Department of Defense surveys.