WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted unanimously Monday to strengthen sexual assault victims' ability to win justice in military courtrooms with a half dozen tweaks including a halt to the "good soldier" defense that enabled the accused to thwart prosecution by citing their service records.
The measure crafted by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., cleared the Senate on a 97-0 vote and headed to the House where it could be adopted as stand-alone legislation or attached to the annual defense authorization legislation that's working its way through Congress.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sounded receptive.
"The entire House is proud of the bipartisan reforms on this important issue included in last year's defense authorization bill, and we will review this legislation to determine the best way to consider additional reforms in the House," said Boehner's spokesman, Michael Steel.
McCaskill welcomed the bipartisan compromise crafted by three of the Senate's 20 women. The prominent, often scrappy Democrat had the backing of GOP Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska for legislation that strengthened scrutiny over commander decisions in sexual assault prosecutions, but left standing their authority to decide whether to prose
cute or not.
In cases where a prosecutor wanted to move ahead against a commander's wishes, the relevant civilian service secretary would be the final arbiter.
"Unanimous agreement in the U.S. Senate is pretty rare -- but rarer still is the kind of sweeping, historic change we've achieved over the past year in the military justice system," said McCaskill.
The measure will "strengthen even further what is now one of the most victim-friendly justice systems in the world," said McCaskill. "Commanders will be held accountable, and more perpetrators will see the inside of a brig."
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate leadership, said he backed McCaskill's measure because "it empowers the victims and holds the military chain of command accountable. By making the needs of the victims the top priority, this bill will allow us to take immediate action to end sexual assault in the military."
The Senate vote ended a bitter fight over more far-reaching reforms that had divided Senate women and saw Democrats and Republicans line up on both sides of the issue. The Senate last week blocked legislation by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that called for independent military lawyers rather than military commanders to make decisions over prosecution of sexual assaults.
In the end, Gillibrand endorsed McCaskill's proposal Monday, three days after telling colleagues they had "failed" survivors of sexual assault by blocking action on her measure. "We know the deck is stacked against victims of sexual assault in the military, and today, we saw the same in the halls of Congress," Gillibrand said Friday.
McCaskill, a former civilian prosecutor, had pressed for less sweeping changes than Gillibrand, some of which had the backing of Pentagon leadership.
But McCaskill's measure still carried major changes including requiring civilian review of any decisions to forego prosecutions, providing victims independent legal counsel, mandating dishonorable discharge or dismissal for GIs convicted of sexual assault and making it a criminal offense to retaliate against GIs who report a sexual assault. Also, commanders' future promotions would be determined in part by how they addressed sexual assaults in their units.
The measure would shelve a decades-old practice that allowed accused GIs to martial a defense around their "good soldier" career.
McCaskill derided the defense as "the ridiculous notion that how well one flies a plane should have anything to do with whether they committed a crime."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had vigorously opposed the more extensive changes proposed by Gillibrand and backed McCaskill's alternative.
The nation's "military culture has been slow to grasp the painful truth that even a successful professional can also be a sexual predator," Levin said.
Advocates of the changes cited a 36 percent surge in the number of incidents of unwanted sexual contact or sexual assault from 2011 to 2012 reported in an anonymous survey. The increase was met by a sharp decrease in the number of incidents actually reported, with victims reporting just 3,374 out of the 26,000 incidents.