Less Controversial Sexual-Assault Bill Sails Through Senate

Defense Department file photo

Sen. Claire McCaskill's bill to change the way the military handles sexual-assault cases passed the Senate with overwhelming—and expected—support Monday, with a 97 to 0 vote. 

The legislation, which the Missouri Democrat crafted along with Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Deb Fischer, R-Neb., would allow victims to have a say on whether their cases are tried in military or civilian court, allow them to challenge their discharge or separation from the service, and would get rid of the "good soldier" defense—which uses a soldier's military performance to combat allegations—except in cases that directly link a soldier's military behavior to the crime.

It would also extend to the military service academies recent sexual-assault changes included in the National Defense Authorization Act that relate to sexual-assault prevention and response programs.

"Unanimous agreement in the U.S. Senate is pretty rare—but rarer still is the kind of sweeping, historic change we've achieved over the past year in the military justice system," McCaskill said. "Today the Senate voted to strengthen even further what is now one of the most victim-friendly justice systems in the world."

The bill also had the backing of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., who said Monday that the legislation "includes real and important reforms" and "will surely make a major contribution in protecting the troops who protect us." 

But it doesn't go as far as a competing proposal by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand which would have stripped from commanders the power to decide which sexual-assault cases are prosecuted. That legislation, which victims-advocacy groups backed and the Pentagon opposed, failed to get the support of 60 senators it needed last week on a procedural vote.

The New York Democrat said that she would try to get her bill included in the next defense authorization round.

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