The Senate on Monday finalized plans for broad reforms in how sexual assault cases are handled in the military, just days after a bitter floor fight over a larger overhaul of the entire military justice system.
The new measure, sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., passed unanimously, disguising deep rifts within the chamber over how best to protect victims and punish sex offenders.
It halts — for now — a months-long fight between two top female Democrats in the Senate on this issue, one that McCaskill complained painted her as soft on military leaders despite her insistence on tougher rules for the services.
“The argument was posed as victims versus commanders and whose side are you on,” she told reporters last week. “It’s not that simple.”
Under the Senate-passed bill, military commanders no longer would be able to overturn jury convictions; the statute of limitations for military rapes would be erased; and victims would receive their own independent counsel in sex crimes cases.
The bill also would require civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a sexual assault case; require dishonorable discharges for troops convicted of such crimes; and create harsh punishments for anyone who retaliates against victims who report rapes and assaults.
And it dumps the so-called “good soldier” defense, which allowed lawyers to cite service members’ past exemplary service as evidence that they would not commit violent crimes.
The measure builds on sexual assault reforms already adopted by Congress last year, in response to questionable response from military leaders following several high-profile sex crimes and rising reports of improper behavior in the ranks.
According to the Defense Department, roughly 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact occurred in the military in 2012, but less than 13 percent were reported and only half of those went to court.
Critics of the system argued that military indifference and vindictiveness was to blame, often accusing victims of hurting unit readiness by reporting the crimes.
Veterans’ groups and victim advocacy organizations had lobbied for changes in McCaskill’s bill in recent years, particularly the extra protections for men and women who report sex crimes.
But over the last year, a number of groups rallied behind an alternative measure sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel, arguing that McCaskill’s reforms didn’t go far enough.
Gillibrand’s plan, which was strongly opposed by military leaders, would have completely separated sexual assault prosecutions from the military justice system in an effort to ensure complete independence from negative influence.
Opponents called her plan a dismantling of the military’s judiciary, noting that under the bill other major crimes could be assigned to independent prosecutors. McCaskill argued that prosecutors — not commanders — were more loathe to go after sex offenders, and taking the cases away from them would result in less scrutiny of cases.
Last week, Gillibrand’s measure fell five votes short of overcoming a filibuster that would have moved it forward for a straight up-or-down vote, despite 55 senators backing the proposal. Gillibrand has vowed to bring up the proposal again in coming months.
Meanwhile, McCaskill said she is hopeful that the strong Senate support for her measure in the wake of the controversy will provide momentum for her legislation in the House. She said the changes would give the military “one of the most victim-friendly justice systems in the world.”
House leaders had publicly dismissed Gillibrand’s plan, but has been more receptive to accepting some of the changes in McCaskill’s bill. No hearings or voting timelines have been scheduled.