Women could be a step closer to registering for the draft, under legislation approved by the Senate on Tuesday. But the Senate declined to take up a measure that would have provided additional protection from sexual assault in the military.
The Senate voted 85-13 to pass the defense authorization bill, moving forward on the measure without considering a slew of amendments. That meant no debate on a provision that would have slowed the expansion of the Selective Service to women and no consideration of a bipartisan effort to change the way military sexual assault cases are prosecuted.
The language on the draft riled some of the Senate's more conservative members. Sen. Ted Cruz, for instance, said he voted against the entire policy bill because of it.
"Despite the many laudable objectives in this bill, I could not in good conscience vote to draft our daughters into the military, sending them off to war and forcing them into combat," Cruz said.
There's no telling whether such a draft provision could ever become law, since the House quietly watered down the language on its own defense bill to simply requiring a study of the future of the Selective Service.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain said he would discuss the matter with House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas, but noted that the provision was supported by all the female members of the Senate panel.
The impasse that left the draft amendment on the table also forestalled debate on a military sexual assault measure that has previously won a support from more than 50 senators — but not the 60 required to close down debate. The measure would have transferred the decision to prosecute such cases from the military chain of command to independent military prosecutors.
“I am deeply upset that the Senate closed the National Defense Authorization Act without even debating military sexual assault and the Military Justice Improvement Act specifically," said Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who led a bipartisan coalition along with Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa in support of the measure.
"The bipartisan amendment has previously earned the support of a majority of Senators twice before and is widely supported by veterans service organizations, retired military members, sexual violence NGOs, military law experts and most importantly military sexual assault survivors," she said.
The senators had cited new statistics showing that members of the military who reported sexual assaults did not believe the current system would work. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a commanding officer decides whether to pursue charges and can then throw out a guilty verdict. The jury members all report to that commander.
A spokesman for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said a measure she successfully championed in 2014 could resolve some of the concerns by limiting a commander's ability to throw out verdicts in sexual abuse cases.
"Not one of the cases examined in this report was handled in the newly-reformed military justice system — so while this is an interesting examination of the previous system, it's largely irrelevant to this year's debate," McCaskill's spokesman said in May. "It also shows no evidence of commanders rejecting a staff judge advocate's recommendation for a court-martial — and the additional reforms it proposes are already included in the Senate's defense bill."
Retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, who was the chief prosecutor for the service branch and is now president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, put the onus on President Barack Obama to act.
"You have told our troops that you have their backs," Christensen said. "However, during your presidency, the military sexual assault crisis has continued, and minimal reforms have not worked. The crisis continues unabated. Retaliation against victims is hauntingly cruel, done with intent, and remains at record highs. The buck stops with you. You can fix the system."
The Associated Press reported earlier this year on findings that the Pentagon misled Congress about sexual assault statistics, in an effort to defeat the Gillibrand proposal in the past.
The bipartisan supporters have called on Obama to launch an independent investigation in the aftermath of the reporting, saying the explanations provided by Defense Secretary Aston B. Carter were not sufficient.
The next opportunity for the debate may come when senators take up their version of the fiscal 2017 spending bill for the Pentagon.
Consideration of amendments stalled on McCain's defense policy bill, when Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, insisted that the Senate debate his measure setting guidelines for the indefinite detention of a citizen on U.S. soil.
Another senator blocked discussion on that item, so Lee would not allow any others go forward — even his own measure calling for a study of women in the draft.
"As soon as we started the bill, I said to Sen. Lee, I know that this [Selective Service] issue is important to you, I'll be glad to take it up right away. He said I don't want to take it up," McCain said.