WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill late Monday making big changes in the military justice system to deal with sexual assault, including scrapping the nearly century-old practice of using a "good soldier defense" to raise doubts that a crime has been committed.
On a vote of 97-0, the Senate rallied behind a bipartisan plan crafted by three female senators — Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska — that would impose a half-dozen changes to combat the pervasive problem of rape and sexual offenses that Pentagon leaders have likened to a cancer within the ranks.
"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," McCaskill said after the vote.
Still, that unanimous support was in sharp contrast to last week, when military leaders vigorously opposed a measure by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would have stripped commanders of their authority to prosecute cases and given that power to seasoned military lawyers outside the chain of command. The Senate voted 55-45 for that farther-reaching bill, but that was five votes short of the necessary 60.
Though expressing certain reservations, the Pentagon had been generally accepting of the new bill.
The House could act on the legislation as a stand-alone measure or incorporate it into the massive defense policy bill that it pulls together in the spring.
This "is not the end of this," Ayotte said in brief remarks on the Senate floor after the vote. "We will make sure reforms that have been passed are implemented, that commanders are held accountable for a climate within their unit of zero tolerance and that victims of sexual assault are treated with dignity and respect."