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Senate Blocks Bill to Remove Sex Prosecutions from Chain of Command

Image: US Marine servicewomen from 2nd Battalio
US Marine servicewomen from 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines Golf Company patrol in Basabad, Helmand Province, on March 9, 2011. The US Marines has deployed about 40 Female Marines in Helmand province and Nimruz for the Female Engagement Team (FET) programme to interact with Afghan civilians, specifically women and children. AFP PHOTO / ADEK BERRY (Photo credit should read ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)ADEK BERRY / AFP-Getty Images file

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The Senate Thursday blocked a bill to stop sexual assault in the military by taking prosecuting authority away from commanders and giving it to independent military prosecutors.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would have applied to rape and other crimes punishable by one year or more.

The vote was 55 to 45 -- five short of the 60 votes needed to advance the measure. For now, the proposal is effectively tabled.

Military leaders have expressed strong opposition to the Gillibrand bill, saying that it would hurt the accountability and leadership of commanders.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D- Mo., is the cosponsor of a rival measure that she said would hold military leaders even more responsible for prosecuting crimes in their units, but leave the authority within the military chain of command.

The dueling proposals produced months of sometimes emotional debate over the growing focus on sexual assault in the military. President Barack Obama has ordered the Pentagon to carry through with steps to reduce those crimes. But the sticking point remains the question of who should prosecute them.

McCaskill says she and Gillibrand agree on most steps to deter sexual assault, disagreeing only on taking prosecutorial decisions out of the military chain of command.

The Gillibrand bill split both parties -- with Democrats such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., opposing it, and conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., supporting it.

On the procedural vote blocking the Gillibrand bill, 11 Republicans sided with Gillibrand and 11 Democrats opposed her.

The Senate was poised to pass McCaskill's measure on Monday.

Gillibrand told reporters after the vote that she would keep working to pass her bill, saying that she might try to attach it to the annual military spending bill in the fall.

Last December, the Congress passed a military spending bill that included several steps to overhaul the process for investigating and prosecuting sexual assault in the military. Last December’s bill included a provision authored to provide sexual assault victims with a Special Victims' Counsel, a military lawyer to guide the victim throughout the legal process. But Gillibrand said those steps did not go far enough.

After the Senate blocked Gillibrand’s measure, Cruz told reporters, “This is both a sad day and an encouraging day – it’s a sad day that we didn’t get the 60 votes that we should have had, but it’s an extraordinary day that 55 senators -- a substantial bipartisan majority today -- stood up and voted to provide serious reform to stop sexual assault in the military.”

He added, “This is a pro-military bill because this is about protecting every man and woman who serves in the armed services. Every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine should be free from sexual violence.”

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