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Senate dispute stalls votes on military sexual assault measures

Republicans blocked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's attempt Wednesday to schedule votes on two rival measures to change the way the military deals with sexual assault cases. 

Reid attempted to set votes on the highly charged proposals -- both amendments to a defense authorization bill -- for Wednesday afternoon. But GOP Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said he wanted assurances that Republicans would get votes on additional measures; without that guarantee, he said he couldn't allow the votes on the sexual assault proposals to go forward. 

The twin proposals were the subject of fierce debate on the Senate floor Wednesday, with both parties divided over the best way to address the disturbing spike in sexual assaults in the military. 

One proposal, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. would shift authority for selecting which sexual assault cases to try from military commanders to prosecutors. Some Defense Department officials and high-profile Senate veterans say that measure, which would remove the assault cases from the chain of command, would disrupt the military’s structure of leadership and accountability. 

But the controversial amendment also has support from unlikely corners; Gillibrand has been personally courting her colleagues and has won support from some of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate, including Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Competing legislation spearheaded by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., would maintain commanders’ authority to prosecute the cases but would strip them of their ability to overturn convictions by juries. The amendment would also require a dishonorable discharge or dismissal for individuals convicted of sexual assault and would establish other review processes.  She is backed by Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Reid said he supports Gillibrand’s measure, boosting its chances of reaching the 60-vote threshold required for passage. As of Wednesday morning, 50 senators had declared public support for the New York senator’s amendment.

The two plans – passionately argued for by some of the most well-respected women in the Senate – have split both parties. And the disagreement between McCaskill and Gillibrand has become unusually personal, with Senate aides privately saying the relationship between the two women has frayed as a result.

But lawmakers say they are united in finding some solution to the spike in sexual assaults in recent years, and Gillibrand has made a point to emphasize she will also be supporting McCaskill’s effort.

“I will be supporting her amendment today because I think the provisions in that amendment will add even more positive changes to the command climate and will help victims feel that they have a stronger voice,” Gillibrand said on the Senate floor.

Last year, a survey found a sharp increase in sexual assaults in the military in 2011.

And a report from the Pentagon earlier this month showed that there were 3,553 such complaints reported between October 2012 and June 2013, a 50 percent increase over the same period the previous year. Military officials say that jump can be attributed to more victims coming forward to report assaults.