NV Politics: Nevada senators lose fight on military sex assault bill

Thu, Mar 6, 2014 (3:32 p.m.)

Dean Heller

Dean Heller

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

Nevada’s senators ended up on the losing side of a months-long fight to change the way the military prosecutes cases of sexual assault.

Today, a bill to remove key decisions from the hands of military commanders fell five votes short of what it needed to move forward.

“There have been ample opportunities for the military to address this issue within its own ranks, and too much time has passed without this issue being solved,” Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said on the Senate floor, shortly before the vote. “Congress needs to address what is currently lacking for victims.”

Heller has been one of the most vocal advocates of an effort by Democratic Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York to give prosecutorial authority to an independent lawyer in cases of sexual assaults within the military.

Gillibrand collected a unique consortium of senators to support her effort, including some of the Senate’s most conservative voices, like Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Tex., and some of its most liberal voices, such as Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Mazie Hirono, D-Hi.

The group also included powerful Senate leaders, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

But the issue pitted the 20 women in the Senate against each other.

Most lined up behind Gillibrand, but Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Deb Fischer, R-Neb., sided with the military, advocating Congress make reforms but keep the reporting and prosecuting of sexual assault cases within the military structure.

“It’s not that simple,” McCaskill said of Gillibrand’s bill. “I would never oppose anything that I thought was going to help victims or put more perpetrators in prison. This will have the opposite impact that people think it will.”

The Senate later voted unanimously to approve a bill by McCaskill allowing victims to have a special counsel, but leaving the ultimate prosecution decisions within the chain of military command.

The Senate began discussing measures to improve the Pentagon’s handling of sexual assault cases last year, after a study showed that unwanted incidents had jumped from about 19,000 cases in 2010 to 26,000 cases in 2012.

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