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Senate Agrees To Vote On Military Sexual Assault Bills

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GILLIBRAND
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) speaks about her proposal to let military prosecutors rather than commanders make decisions on whether to prosecute sexual assaults in the armed forces, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Nov. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans relented Wednesday night and agreed to hold expedited votes on a pair of bills that would further crack down on sexual assaults in the military.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) on Monday had objected to the votes, saying they should be paired with a vote to stiffen sanctions against Iran. He announced Tuesday he supports the anti-assault bills, however, and Republicans are now trying to attach Iran sanctions to a pending veterans benefits bill.

The circumstances apparently paved the way for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to announce an agreement on the Senate floor.

Reid's office said that the agreement means there will be a votes on each of the two measures -- one sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the other by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) -- and four hours of debate some time in the next two weeks. Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will determine the timing.

"Sen. McCaskill is thrilled that just weeks after historic reforms were passed into law, and after months of debate, we'll finally have the chance to vote on these proposals," said McCaskill spokeswoman Sarah Feldman.

Both measures seek to build on those reforms, although Gillibrand's would take a further step urged by many victims' advocate groups and remove serious offenses from the military chain of command in favor of independent military prosecutors. McCaskill objects to Gillibrand's measure, saying it's unnecessary and could backfire on victims.

Gillibrand backs McCaskill's measure, so the Missouri lawmaker likely has a filibuster-proof majority behind it. Gillibrand has majority support -- 55 senators back her measure -- but McCaskill and her allies are vowing to block it on a filibuster vote that is being allowed under the agreement Reid announced,

Still, Gillibrand said she believed that she would secure the votes she needs to break the 60-vote filibuster threshold, especially after Moran, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, came her way this week.

“I am confident, that if needed, we will earn the votes needed to overcome a filibuster and promise that my colleagues and I who support this common-sense reform will fight with all we have for its passage until the final gavel comes down. The men and women of our military deserve no less," said Gillibrand, who earlier Wednesday held a hearing on the impacts of sex assault on members of the armed services.

MIlitary officials admitted during the hearing that only about 20 percent of sexual assault victims report their attacks, a figure that's about double the rate found in a report a year ago that estimated 26,000 men and women are victimized in the services each year.

"Military sexual assault survivors have bravely walked the halls of Congress for over a year now advocating for this change, reliving some of the worst moments of their lives, so hopefully another service member doesn’t have to," Gillibrand said. "I am pleased that their long wait for their day on the Senate floor appears to be nearing an end."

Eugene Mulero contributed reporting.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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