WASHINGTON (AP) — Senators rallied behind significant changes in military law to curb rape and sexual assault within the ranks, approving steps to protect the victims and barring the "good soldier defense" to ensure evidence alone determines a defendant's fate.
With the women of the Senate leading the fight, lawmakers voted 97-0 Monday for legislation that would force a half-dozen major changes on a military struggling with a pervasive problem that Pentagon leaders concede could cost the services the trust and respect of the public and make it harder to attract men and women to serve in the all-volunteer force.
The measure, which now heads to the House, comes on top of more than 30 changes that Congress approved and President Barack Obama signed into law as part of a defense policy bill just four months ago.
"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," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who joined with two Republican women — Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska — in writing the legislation.
Still, that unanimous support was in sharp contrast to last week, when military leaders vigorously opposed a measure by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would have stripped commanders of their authority to prosecute cases and given that power to military lawyers outside the chain of command. The Senate voted 55-45 for that farther-reaching bill, but that was five votes short of the necessary 60.
That vote left some hard feelings in the Senate as Gillibrand's bill divided the typical coalitions, splitting women and the political parties.
"While there have been differences of opinion on how best to combat sexual assault in the military, everyone agrees that the current system is broken," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who backed Gillibrand's effort. "We've made some good reforms today and I know that all the women senators will be monitoring this issue closely to ensure there are real improvements in the way sexual assault is reported and prosecuted in the future."