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Defense Bill With Sexual Assault Reforms Clears Senate; President Obama Gives Military One Year To Make Progress

Defense Bill With Sexual Assault Reforms Clears Senate; President Obama Gives Military One Year To Make Progress

December 20, 2013 — The Senate on Thursday voted 84-15 to pass a defense authorization bill that includes several changes to how the military addresses sexual assault, the AP/Miami Herald reports. The measure -- passed by the House last week -- now heads to President Obama (Cassata, AP/Miami Herald, 12/19).

The vote came after House and Senate negotiators reached a final agreement earlier this month on the National Defense Authorization Act. The legislation includes minimum sentencing guidelines for perpetrators of sexual assaults. It would also expand a special victim's counsel program for sexual assault survivors throughout the military, bar commanding officers from overturning sexual assault verdicts and make it a crime to retaliate against a person who reports a sexual assault.

Under the measure, military courts of investigation -- known as Article 32 hearings -- looking into criminal complaints, including sexual assault, would act similarly to preliminary hearings considering whether there is probable cause for a court-martial. Under the current system, sexual assault accusers are brought before investigators and questioned in cross-examinations (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/16).

Bill Passed Without Amendments; Sen. McCaskill Pledges Further Reforms

According to the AP/Herald, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) insisted that the bill would be considered as it had been approved by the House, without any additional amendments (AP/Miami Herald, 12/19). Nonetheless, Republican lawmakers, frustrated with the decision, engaged in debate over various provisions (Alexander, Reuters/Chicago Tribune, 12/19).

The measure does not include a proposal by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would remove military cases involving crimes punishable by more than one year of confinement from the chain of command. Gillibrand's proposal is expected to get a vote as a separate measure, perhaps in early 2014 (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/16).

In addition, the bill does not include several additional changes proposed by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). McCaskill said the bill was a "huge win" for sexual assault victims, but she added that "this is no finish line."

She said, "In the months and years ahead, vigilance will be required to ensure that these historic reforms are implemented forcefully and effectively" (Reuters/Chicago Tribune, 12/19).

President Obama: Military Must Make Progress by Next December

On Friday, President Obama said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have until next Dec. 1 to review progress on preventing and responding to sexual assaults in the military and report back to him on their findings, the AP/ABC News reports.

Obama said in a statement, "If I do not see the kind of progress I expect, then we will consider additional reforms that may be required to eliminate this crime from our military ranks and protect our brave service members who stand guard for us every day at home and around the world."

Obama did not specify which types of reforms he might consider. The White House has said the president supports the measures in the Defense bill but remains open to ideas (Cassata/Pickler, AP/ABC News, 12/20).