The future of the military justice system is uncertain this morning, as legislation aimed at stopping the growing number of sexual assaults in the armed forces was rejected by key members of Congress, on the grounds that the changes go too far. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.
By Andrea Mitchell and Alastair Jamieson, NBC News
An effort to place military sex assault cases in the hands of an independent prosecutor was thwarted late Tuesday when Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin sided with the top brass – and against a fellow Democrat.
Levin (D-Mich.) will strip a proposal by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) from the policy-setting Defense Authorization Act and replace it with a measure that instead requires senior military officers to review decisions when commanders refuse to prosecute a case.
Gillibrand’s proposal - which had 27 co-sponsors, including 4 Republicans – came in response to complaints that the U.S. military has repeatedly failed to deal with the issue of sex assaults. The military has resisted efforts to involve outsiders in its handling of such cases.
Aides for Gillibrand told NBC's Capital Hill correspondent Kelly O'Donnell that the move was "a real setback."
She is expected to make another attempt to introduce her proposal when the defense bill comes up for a final vote later this summer.
Levin, who is not seeking re-election, is expected to accept an amendment from Senator Claire McCaskill to prevent commanders from overturning jury verdicts.
The intra-party showdown is an example of the generational and gender divide on this issue - even as it has gained more attention and support with the additional women now in the senate.
Last month, a Pentagon report revealed that the number of service personnel who made an anonymous claim that they were sexually assaulted but never reported the attack skyrocketed from 19,000 in FY11 to 26,000 in FY12.
Embarrassingly, the report was published just a day after it was revealed that the Air Force's sexual-abuse prevention chief has himself been charged with sexual assault.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Thursday proposed major changes to military laws for sexual assault cases, backing a bill to prevent military commanders from handling sexual assault cases that involve their subordinates.
"We believe enough is enough. It is time to change this system that has been held over since George Washington that is simply not working today for the men and women who are serving," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a member of the Armed Services Committee who is spearheading the legislation.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is joined by a group of colleagues on Capitol Hill while introducing sexual assault legislation that would reform the military justice system.
"What does it say about us as a people, as a nation, as the foremost military in the world, when some of our servicemembers both men and women have more to fear from their fellow soldiers than from the enemy?" asked Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
The bill would take serious sexual assault cases completely out of the military's chain of command if the potential sentence amounts to more than a year in prison -- the equivalent of a felony in a civilian court.
"When any single victim of sexual assault is forced to salute her attacker, clearly our system is broken," Gillibrand said.
The military has resisted such sweeping changes in the past, but a recent string of incidents has increased pressure on Defense Department leaders to change the policy. The top Air Force officer charged with preventing sexual assault was accused of attacking a woman in a Virginia parking lot, and a soldier at Fort Hood tasked with sexual assault prevention is under investigation for sexual abuse.
Collins and Gillibrand spoke at a press conference Thursday morning, where she was joined by an array of colleagues from both house of Congress and from both parties, including Collins, and Reps. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., and Krysten Sinema, D-Ariz.
Gillibrand's bill also requires that a decision about how a sexual assault case is handled -- whether it goes to trial and how the court-martial proceeds -- is made by someone who holds a rank equivalent to colonel.
It would also allow each military service's chief of staff to establish courts, empanel juries and pick judges to hear sexual assault cases, and write into law a proposal from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that prevents commanders from overturning sexual assault convictions or reducing guilty findings to lesser offenses.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
Senate subcommittee on Personnel Chair Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. addresses the third panel on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2013, during the subcommittee's hearing on sexual assault in the military.
The event was held in advance of a planned meeting at the White House on the issue. President Barack Obama was to meet with Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, the military service chiefs, military service secretaries, and the senior enlisted advisers.
Gillibrand and other lawmakers met earlier this month with top White House advisers -- the meeting was led by Valerie Jarrett, who is personally close to the president -- to discuss the problem.
This story was originally published on Thu May 16, 2013 11:25 AM EDT
Updated at 3 a.m. ET: The Year of the Woman, 1992, was declared a triumph when the number of women in the Senate increased to six.
Cheryl Senter / AP file
Now that Maggie Hassan has been elected as governor of New Hampshire, her state will assume the distinction of being the only state with a woman governor and an all-female Congressional delegation (two senators and one congresswoman). Washington state passed on a version of that baton on Tuesday night, as Gov. Chris Gregoire is retiring and the two candidates running for her position are men.
This year, the so-called "War on Women" energized Democrats to break a record for the number of women-held seats in the Senate. Nineteen women are in the Senate now, one more than the record set during the last Congress.
Among them are Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren who became the first female senator of Massachusetts when she ousted Sen. Scott Brown; Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay senator, who edged out former Governor Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin; and incumbent Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who beat Republican Todd Akin whose comments about rape were likely his demise.
No one disputes there remains a dramatic gender gap in Congress, where women make up just 17 percent of the House and the Senate. But women have slowly gained political power since 1991, when there were just two women in the Senate.
The new U.S. Senate will have a record number of women, ranging from the first Asian-American woman elected -- to consumer advocate and Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.
NBC has also confirmed that Deb Fischer, a Republican, beat former Sen. Bob Kerrey in Nebraska, that Democrat Mazie Hirono in Hawaii beat Linda Lingle, becoming the Senate's first Asian-American woman.
Among incumbents, Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Dianne Feinstein of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Maria Cantwell of Washington state won reelection by wide margins.
Also significant: Roughly half the 33 Senate races had a viable female candidate, more than ever before, according to NPR. That’s noteworthy because women less often seek out office or have more trouble raising campaign money.
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
Elizabeth Warren waves to supporters before voting at the Graham and Park School 44 in Cambridge, Mass.
“There’s no group that will be impacted more by this election than women,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said on her website. “Look at the bills the GOP House has passed this Congress: they voted to redefine rape, they voted to defund Planned Parenthood and Title X funding.”
Gillibrand herself easily won re-election over Republican Wendy Long.
There will be fewer female governors after this election, however. There are currently six women governors out of 50, and Govs. Chris Gregoire of Washington and Bev Perdue of North Carolina, both Democrats, are retiring.
American University professor Jen Lawless discusses how Elizabeth Warren's win in the Massachusetts senate race will impact other women candidates.
Gregoire’s retirement means Washington state will lose its distinction of having a female governor and two female senators at the same time. Now that Democrat Maggie Hassan has been elected governor, New Hampshire will assume that distinction -- and then some: the state's governor and Congressional delegation is female, EMILY's List posted Tuesday night.
"We've always had a tradition of a lot of women running for office in New Hampshire," New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, told NBC's Brian Williams on Tuesday.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat who was first elected in the Year of the Woman, served as the party’s chief recruiter, seeking out qualified women and capitalizing on the "war on women" in a speech she made at the Democratic convention in early September.
(Murray was not up for re-election this cycle.)
Office of Sen. Maria Cantwell
This photo, hanging in Sen. Maria Cantwell's lobby in Washington, D.C., shows Cantwell, left, Gov. Chris Gregoire, center, and Sen. Patty Murray touring Washington state flood damage in 2009.
Murray recruited Baldwin and Shelley Berkley of Nevada, who was running against Dean Heller.
"When we started this campaign, no one, and I mean no one gave us a chance," said Murray on Tuesday night, according to the Huffington Post. "But we went out and built the best Senate campaigns in the history of the country. We recruited some of the highest quality candidates, including a record number of women. Democrats never let up and now we will retain our majority in the United States Senate."
McCaskill, the incumbent, was in danger of losing her seat until Akin said in a television interview that "legitimate" rape would not result in a pregnancy, because the female body “has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”
His comments, decried as sexist and out of touch, returned McCaskill to the game.
In the month after Akin made those remarks, EMILY's List, which supports women candidates, raised $2.3 million, the Wall Street Journal reported. After another rape comment, made by another GOP candidate, EMILY’s List raised another $631,000.
In New York, Gillibrand made women’s issues a theme in her re-election campaign. One ad opens with her pointing out that she is one of the only female senators with young children.
Her ad concludes: “I’m Kirsten Gillibrand and I approve this message, because if 51 percent of Congress were women, we wouldn’t be debating contraception, we would be debating jobs and the economy.”
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner defended President Obama's economic record, saying his policies have been "remarkably successful."
"History will judge what [President Obama] did as remarkably effective crisis management at a deeply dark time for the world economy."
Geithner also attempted to calm fears of some, like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) who say that if the United States continues on it's current fiscal path, in two years it will suffer similar problems as can be seen happening in Greece today.
Geithner said there is "no risk of that."
On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney has tried to make up for poor polling among women voters by arguing that the president's policies have adversely affected females in the country. Romney has stated that 92% of the jobs lost under President Obama were ones held by women. Secretary Geithner dismissed Romney's numbers, saying "That's a ridiculous and deeply misleading look at the economy."
Then, with the female vote getting so much attention this week, we featured a debate between two influential women in their parties: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN).
Both Bachmann and Gillibrand criticized Rosen's comments and turned focus back to the economy. Bachmann, the former presidential candidate even waded in to the race saying she is "very seriously looking" at endorsing Mitt Romney.
You can watch our entire program on our website including our roundtable discussion featuring former Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. (D-TN), Republican strategist Mike Murphy, and NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie and Chuck Todd.
We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.