Senate will vote on military justice shakeup this year, Gillibrand says

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said Thursday that her legislation to overhaul how the military prosecutes serious crimes will likely receive a vote in the Senate in the fall.

The New York Democrat, who's pushed for nearly a decade to remove military commanders' authority to prosecute major crimes in order to combat sexual assault and other problems in the ranks, told reporters she's received assurances from Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that the bill will get a standalone floor vote.

“He supports the measure. He has voted for it in the past,” Gillibrand said. “And he has told me that he will give me a vote.”

The military justice shakeup — which would remove the chain of command from decisions involving prosecution and give the responsibility to independent military prosecutors — would almost certainly pass if granted a vote. Gillibrand has secured 65 cosponsors, including 21 Republicans, for overhauling the system as concern grows across Capitol Hill about the military's inability to stem the tide of sexual assaults in the ranks. Support for the bill is above the 60-vote threshold needed to advance most legislation on the Senate floor.

A vote will likely wait until after the August congressional recess, Gillibrand said, because lawmakers are focused on spending legislation and talks on a massive infrastructure and jobs package.

“We have a lot of work that has more urgency,” she said. “And so we will probably have our vote on this in the fall.”

The vote would also mark a breakthrough for Gillibrand and other advocates of the change, who have seen their efforts to force a floor vote stymied by Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and ranking Republican Jim Inhofe despite overwhelming support. For months, Gillibrand has sought unanimous consent on the Senate floor to line up a vote on the bill, but has been blocked by Reed and Inhofe.

She also laid blame for a delayed vote on Reed, whose objections could draw out the floor time needed to pass the bill.

“Because Jack Reed has objected to a consent agreement to just have two hours of debate equally divided and do it up and down in one day … if you literally used every bit of time, it would take two weeks,” Gillibrand said.

Reed has argued that the military justice legislation should be dealt with in the Armed Services Committee. He has endorsed removing commanders' authority to prosecute sex crimes, a reform backed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and President Joe Biden following the recommendations of an independent review panel on military sexual assault commissioned by the Pentagon chief.

Military leaders, however, have warned against removing commanders' authority to prosecute all serious crimes, beyond just sex assault, arguing that doing so could erode discipline and unit cohesion. Gillibrand counters that a broader change is also needed to address racial disparities in courts-martial.

Gillibrand said she'll offer her military justice proposal, along with other sexual assault prevention measures, when the Armed Services Committee marks up its annual defense policy bill next week. She added she's pursuing a separate floor vote to ensure the measure isn't torpedoed in a compromise defense bill hammered out with the House.

“We're certainly going to debate all of these ideas in the committee, and I will hopefully get votes on everything within the committee. But I also hope to get a floor vote,” Gillibrand said. “I have a concern that even if we win in committee and get the things we want in this bill that it will be taken out in conference, and so I think it is necessary to have a floor vote no matter what.”

Though the Pentagon has not endorsed her broader overhaul, Gillibrand praised Austin for supporting the shift on prosecuting sex crimes.

She also predicted Biden would be willing to sign her bill if it passes, noting a conversation with the commander in chief on the bill and his statements on the campaign trail supporting the change.

“I do believe he does support this bill. I spoke to President Biden,” Gillibrand said. “I'm not going to say what he said … but it was essentially a congratulatory call when I got 66 cosponsors, and there was an indication that he'd love to sign that into law.”

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