Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York's junior senator, saw her military sex assault bill fall short in the U.S. Senate on Thursday, March 6.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York’s junior senator, saw her military sex assault bill fall short in the U.S. Senate on Thursday, March 6.

Despite having bipartisan majority support for her landmark initiative to combat rape and sexual assault in the armed services, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) could not find five more votes to end a filibuster that blocked her Military Justice Improvement Act from passing the U.S. Senate Thursday.

An unusual coalition, to say the least, which included Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), voted 55-45 in favor of the legislative effort by New York’s junior Democratic Senator to help military victims of sexual assault seek justice by removing commanders from the decisions on whether to prosecute serious crimes committed in the ranks and give that discretion to professional military trial lawyers operating outside the chain of command.

According to news reports, 10 Democrats voted against her plan while 11 Republicans supported her bill. Gillibrand, who chairs the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel, reportedly had veterans groups on her side, but not the top Pentagon brass. According to the Washington Post, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, criticized her bill by estimating that it could cost $113 million a year to set up and run a new independent legal staff—concerns that Gillibrand scoffed at.

But her biggest obstacle turned out to be fellow a Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill, who thought Gillibrand’s bill undercut military authority and wouldn’t protect victims enough to justify it. McCaskill insisted on the 60-vote filibuster threshold. Recently, Congress voted to end the statute of limitations on assault and rape cases in the military and made it a crime to retaliate against victims who come forward to report them. McCaskill supported these moderate reforms but could not back Gillibrand’s effort—even though, as Thursday’s vote proved, 54 of her other Senate colleagues did support it.

Gillibrand won’t give up the fight, her spokeswoman says.

“From the very beginning, this was never about being a Democratic idea or a Republican idea,” said Gillibrand in a statement. “It was just the right thing to do – that people of good faith from both parties could unite around.”


She praised “the retired generals, former commanders and veterans of every rank for making their voices heard.” And she singled out the survivors of these assaults “who, despite being betrayed by their chain of command, continue to serve their country by fighting for a justice system that will help make sure no one else suffers the same tragedy they did.”

Gillibrand said she was inspired by the survivors’ courage to come forward in support of her controversial bill.

“They marched the halls of this Congress,” Gillibrand related, “reliving the horror they endured, telling their stories, in hopes that no one else who serves our country has to suffer as they did.

“Tragically, today the Senate failed them,” she said. “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.”

“For two full decades, since Dick Cheney served as the Defense Secretary during the Tailhook scandal that shook the military and shocked the nation,” Gillibrand continued, “we’ve heard the same thing: ‘zero tolerance’ to sexual assault in the military. But the truth is in the results, and that’s ‘zero accountability.’ ”

She was referring to a Las Vegas convention in 1991 sponsored by the Tailhook Association, attended by some 4,000 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps personnel, where 83 women and seven men reported they’d been the victims of sexual assault and harassment while some of their officers looked on and did nothing to prevent the wrongdoing.

“We will continue the fight for justice and accountability,” Gillibrand vowed at the Senate on Thursday. “That is our duty.”