WASHINGTON -- The Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday voted down a fundamental restructuring of the military justice system for sexual assault cases despite Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's impassioned pleas that dramatic change is needed.
In a 17-9 vote, the committee approved an amendment by committee chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that would keep the power to decide which assault cases to try within the military chain of command, instead of shifting it to independent military prosecutors as Gillibrand proposed.
"The victims tell us they do not report [sexual assault] because of the chain of command," said Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), citing surveys in which victims say they fear retaliation.
"We can believe them. Or we cannot believe them," she said, urging support for her proposal. "Many here don't listen to the victims. They don't believe the victims."
Gillibrand picked up two unexpected Republican votes, including a strong surprise endorsement by conservative Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
But she lost the support of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who has been a leader in pushing the military to address and reduce sexual assaults.
"We have an honest disagreement on how to accomplish our shared goals in putting predators in prison and assuring victims," said McCaskill, who voted for Levin's measure.
The committee approved the amendment by Levin and a package of 10 other amendments addressing sexual assault that were passed out of Gillibrand's personnel subcommittee.
The amendments were to the annual defense reauthorization bill, which the Senate will take up at later date. Gillibrand said that when it does, she will offer her amendment again with the hope of getting enough bipartisan support for passage.
By retaining commanders' control over sexual assault cases, Levin and the majority of the committee heeded the testimony of the top U.S. military leaders last week that the chain of command is central to the operation of U.S. armed forces.
Commanders are the solution, said Levin and his supporters, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). They must be held accountable for reducing sexual harassment and assault by changing the culture among those under their command, they said.
"Our goal here is prevention. That can only be accomplished by chain of command," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). "If a commander does not measure up, he or she is removed from command."
Gillibrand praised portions of Levin's amendment that would make retaliation for reporting assaults a crime and require levels of review of commanders' decisions on sexual assault cases.