WASHINGTON — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s three-year campaign to revamp prosecution of military sexual assault failed again Tuesday when the Senate passed a sweeping $602 billion national defense policy bill without debating or voting on her measure and dozens of other amendments.
The Republican majority’s bill, which passed 85-13 in defiance of a White House veto threat, requires for the first time that women register for a military draft, bars shutting down the Guantanamo Bay terrorist prison camp and stops the Pentagon from closing military bases.
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The Senate bill must be reconciled with the House version passed last month, which does not include the draft for women but adds $18 billion more that the Pentagon did not request.
Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said she was “deeply upset” that the Senate passed the defense bill without debating her legislation. Her measure would shift sexual-assault prosecutions from the chain of command to military lawyers, in part to remove victims’ fears of retaliation for reporting attacks.
“Today is a setback in our fight on survivors’ behalf, but it is no more than that,” said Gillibrand, one of seven Democrats to vote against the bill. “I refuse to back down.”
Gillibrand’s amendment was one of many blocked by some senators because their own measures didn’t get votes, said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Armed Services Committee chairman.
“Too often throughout this process, a single senator was able to bring the Senate’s work on our national defense bill to a halt,” he said.
McCain said one blocked amendment has life-and-death consequences: an extension of a visa program for Afghans who worked as interpreters or in other jobs for the U.S. coalition and now face death threats as “traitors.”
Some Republicans voted against the bill because of the women’s draft. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) sought to replace that requirement with a study. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) called it “a radical change ... foisted on the American people.”
The White House objected to parts of the legislation and complained it seeks to “micromanage” with measures such as capping at 150 the number of staffers on the president’s National Security Council.
But with its vote, the Senate showed it could override a veto.
Gillibrand expressed frustration with the Senate — where her measure fell five votes short in 2014, 10 votes short last June and didn’t even get a vote this year.
She said she’d press President Barack Obama to take executive action as commander in chief.
But Obama has not intervened and White House spokesman Josh Earnest earlier this year dismissed Gillibrand’s charge that the Pentagon had misled Congress on military sexual assault prosecutions as a “bureaucratic dispute.”
Still, Gillibrand said, “Whether it is this president and Congress or the next, we will not give up.”