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Nevada senators on board with proposal changing prosecution of sexual assault in armed forces

Updated Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013 | 1:33 p.m.

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Sen. Dean Heller is shown during a dedication ceremony for the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System Las Vegas Medical Center (VASNHS) in North Las Vegas Monday, August 6, 2012.

Nevada's two senators announced today that they would back a proposal to give military victims of rape and other forms of assault the right to access lawyers outside the regular chain of command to prosecute their cases.

“I’m going to support Gillibrand,” Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters this afternoon, referring to the measure proposed by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand.

He said he hoped the Senate would vote on the measure Wednesday.

Congress has been weighing an overhaul of the military’s system of prosecuting, punishing and preventing assault cases since a Defense Department report earlier this year showed that complaints of sexual assault were on the rise, and suggested that as many as 26,000 members of the armed forces were the victims of some sort of unwanted sexual contact during 2012.

That some changes are needed is an all but universal conclusion among member of Congress. But lawmakers — especially lawmakers in the GOP — have been sorely divided as to whether the military simply needs new rules or an entirely new system of meting out justice in these cases.

This morning, Sen. Dean Heller decided to side with Gillibrand’s approach — which eliminates the statute of limitations on such cases, turns the decision about whether to prosecute to independent military prosecutors instead of commanders and compels a civilian review process any time commanders decide not to prosecute a complaint of assault — has earned her some uncommon allies, including Tea Party favorites Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., and Rand Paul, R-Ky.

"After much deliberation, and after extensive conversations with victims and senators from both sides of the issue, I believe that the Military Justice Improvement Act is the best path forward,” Heller said this morning, citing the measure proposed by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that the Senate is expected to vote on soon.

“This legislation transcends party lines,” Heller continued. “Ensuring victims are confident in reporting crimes and protecting them from retaliation must be a top priority.”

But the Pentagon is stiffly opposed to the Gillibrand proposal, as are many of its closest allies on Capitol Hill.

According to the Associated Press, 11 senators of the Armed Services Committee, including its Democratic chairman, sent a letter to their colleagues Monday arguing that Gillibrand’s proposed changes would “significantly undermine the military system of justice and discipline.”

Reid said today that Levin was aware of his decision to back Gillibrand’s proposal.

Gillibrand likely would need to secure 60 votes for the bill to avoid the threat of a filibuster. In various interviews over the past few days, she has expressed confidence that she will be able to get enough senators on board.

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