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Sen. Gillibrand's military sexual assault amendment to be heard

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. (June 4, 2013)

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. (June 4, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The showdown over Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's attempt to fundamentally transform the military justice system for sexual assault victims will begin as the Senate takes up the Department of Defense reauthorization bill, expected to happen this week and as soon as Wednesday.

Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said she will offer an amendment to the bill when it is on the Senate floor to strip the decision-making authority to prosecute sexual assault and other crimes from commanders, as it is done now, and turn it over instead to military attorneys.

"There is no accountability because the trust that any justice is possible has been irreparably broken under the current system where commanders hold all the cards as to whether a case will move forward or not," she said last week at a rally for her bill.

"Our bipartisan bill takes this issue head on by removing decision-making from the chain of command and giving that discretion to experienced trial counsel with prosecutorial experience where it belongs," she said.

In her crusade to revamp military justice, the junior senator from New York is bucking the Pentagon and longtime Senate Armed Services chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who oppose removing the chain of command from those prosecutions.

But it is not clear if Gillibrand has the 60 votes needed to pass her amendment over an expected filibuster by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has said he will do "anything to stop" her measure.

Gillibrand said she will have the votes she needs from bipartisan supporters in the Senate.

"The senator has met with the vast majority of the undecided senators and believes the path to 60 votes will be successful," her spokesman Glen Caplin said Tuesday.

"She will continue meeting with additional undecided senators in the coming days to discuss the need for this critical reform in great detail," he said.

Gillibrand said her measure, the Military Justice Improvement Act, already has 47 votes -- 38 co-sponsors of her measure and another nine senators who have publicly supported it. Caplin said she expects to get votes from at least half of the 32 undecided senators.

The amendment represents her last shot this year at forcing the U.S. Armed Forces to make this change in response to what she says is an epidemic of military sexual assault cases.

Her bid to include her measure in the defense authorization bill failed when the Armed Services Committee rejected it.

The maneuvering by both sides has increased as Senate action on the bill has neared.

Last week, the Defense Department said service member confidence in the current system was shown by a 46 percent jump in sexual assault reports from last October to June -- 3,553 compared with 2,434 the year before.

But Gillibrand said it wasn't clear whether it represented a spike in assaults or better reporting.

Nearly two weeks ago, Gillibrand temporarily blocked President Barack Obama's nominee for Navy undersecretary, Jo Ann Rooney, because Rooney said the amendment would "result in fewer prosecutions" and "defeat the very problem that I understand it seeks to address."

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