The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

December 20, 2013

Congress sends sweeping defense bill to Obama

WASHINGTON (AP) — The women of the Senate who led the fight to change how the military deals with sexual assault in its ranks are hailing passage of a comprehensive defense bill that now heads to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The Senate voted 84-15 Thursday night for the $632.8 billion bill that covers combat pay, new ships, aircraft and military bases. Drawing the greatest attention were provisions cracking down on perpetrators of sexual assault and rape.

The military's handling of high-profile cases united Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate in a concerted effort to change the Uniform Code of Military Justice, with Senate women leading the fight. Estimates from the Pentagon that 26,000 members of the military may have been sexually assaulted last year, though thousands were afraid to come forward for fear of inaction or retribution, emboldened lawmakers to act.

"Today represents a huge win for victims of sexual assault, and for justice in America's armed forces, but this is no finish line," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., one of seven women on the Armed Services Committee who pushed for the changes. "In the months and years ahead, vigilance will be required to ensure that these historic reforms are implemented forcefully and effectively."

The legislation would strip military commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, require a civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case and require that any individual convicted of sexual assault face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal. The bill also would provide victims with legal counsel, eliminate the statute of limitations for courts-martial in rape and sexual assault cases, and criminalize retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault.

"Today we have taken a major, unprecedented step toward finally eliminating the plague of sexual assault in our nation's military," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

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