Senate rejects proposal to bar military commanders from sexual assault cases

Despite majority support, the measure lacked the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster

By Katie McDonough
March 7, 2014 8:07PM (UTC)
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Kirsten Gillibrand (Jeff Malet,

The Senate on Thursday rejected a proposal to block military commanders from sexual assault cases and move prosecution outside the chain of command.

The measure, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., had bipartisan support in the Senate and ultimately received 55 votes, but did not hit the 60-vote threshold necessary to advance to a floor vote as a result of a filibuster backed by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., whose alternate proposal of more modest reforms ultimately advanced with a vote of 100-0.


“The only reason some are forcing a filibuster on the Gillibrand vote is because they know we have a majority,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who supported Gillibrand's measure.

Supporters of the measure, including a bipartisan coalition of senators and a network of service member and veteran advocacy groups, argued that radical reforms to change how sexual assault is prosecuted are necessary because many victims do not report for fear of retaliation from commanders, who often know both the victims and the alleged abusers.

More from the New York Times:


Critics of the military’s handling of such cases say that the official numbers represent a tiny percentage of sexual assault cases, while Ms. Gillibrand said that only one in 10 sexual assaults were reported. She and her supporters argue that forcing victims to go to their commanders to report sexual assaults is similar to forcing a woman to tell her father that her brother has assaulted her.

Because commanders often know both the victims and the accused abusers, Ms. Gillibrand’s supporters say, victims often shy away from reporting abuse. Military commanders, they say, have not proven themselves able to deal with the issue.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” Mr. Paul said. Mr. Grassley added: “The Defense Department has been promising the American people for a long time that they’re working on the problem of sexual assault.” Then he said, “Enough is enough.” [...]

After blocking Ms. Gillibrand’s bill, the Senate agreed, 100-0, to move ahead with a measure sponsored by Ms. McCaskill and two Republicans, Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska. The legislation calls for a civilian review if a prosecutor and commander disagree over whether to litigate a sexual assault case. A vote on that bill is scheduled for next week.

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Claire Mccaskill D-n.y. Kirsten Gillibrand Military Sexual Assault Military Sexual Trauma