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Bessent: More time for Kirsten Gillibrand to lobby for votes

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., listens to a fellow

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., listens to a fellow senator speak to reporters about a bill regarding sexual assault in the military on Capitol Hill in Washington. (July 16, 2013) Credit: AP

Hurry up and wait.

That's the story of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's crusade to move the prosecution of sexual assaults in the U.s. military out of the chain of command.

Her revolutionary amendment to strip commanders of that authority and give it to professional military prosecutors was queued up for a vote this week in the U.S. Senate. With 53 senators publicly backing it (and maybe a few others privately), the New York senator was trolling the shrinking pool of undecideds, angling to hook enough to land the filibuster-busting 60 votes needed for success. She was tantalizingly close.

Then on Thursday, the Senate hit a wall -- actually two of them -- that put the vote on her amendment to a major defense bill on hold.

It stalled when the Senate got sidetracked by an arcane fight over how many amendments were going to be allowed.

Then, things went nuclear.

In a historic showdown, Democrats blew up centuries of Senate tradition when they voted to change a Senate rule that allowed the minority party -- in this case Republicans -- to filibuster judicial and executive branch nominations.

As revolutionary as it was to limit the filibuster, it was how Democrats did it that's been called "the nuclear option." Instead of marshaling the 67 votes traditionally needed to change a Senate rule, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) found a way to do it with just a simple majority of 51 votes. That eliminated the need for any Republican support. It's a good thing, because he got no Republican votes. And new heights of partisan rancor are all but guaranteed.

So instead of simply battling the Pentagon and its powerful congressional allies -- including fellow Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who has a competing bill for curbing rape in the ranks that would leave commanders in charge -- Gillibrand has to scramble to keep her Republican supporters on board until the Senate goes back to work Dec. 9.

Meanwhile, she'll be meeting one on one with crucial “undecided” Senators and connecting them with supportive military generals and sympathetic abuse victims as she works to convince, cajole or coerce some of them to sign on.

The line from her staff right now is that the extra time is helpful. Hopefully helpful enough.