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What's next in the fight to stop military sexual assault

The impending passage of a defense bill ends only one chapter in the fight to end sexual assault in the military.
Senators Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) and  Claire McCaskill (D-MO) talk with reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 20, 2013.
Senators Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) and  Claire McCaskill (D-MO) talk with reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 20, 2013.

The House of Representatives passed a compromise defense bill on Thursday night, moving major reforms to the way the military handles sexual assault one step closer to becoming law.

The 350-69 vote was a victory for Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, who successfully fended off the efforts of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to remove sexual assault prosecutions from the military chain of command. For Gillibrand, who has already introduced her proposal as its own piece of legislation, it is a momentary setback.

"Senator Gillibrand has been assured a vote on her amendment, and will continue to work to build additional support, making sure all undecided Senators have an opportunity to meet with former generals and survivors and advocates and hear their stories," said Gillibrand spokeswoman Bethany Lesser.

The vote on Gillibrand's Military Justice Improvement Act will reignite the debate over a commander’s role in decisions surrounding sexual assault cases. McCaskill has already said she will again offer an alternative to Gillibrand’s bill that would make more changes but still stop short of removing authority from military commanders. The New York Senator would be happy to see both bills pass. "She certainly also supports Senator McCaskill's measure," Lesser said.

McCaskill, like Gillibrand, doesn't want to stop with the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). "Senator McCaskill’s primary goal was seeing the big reforms already approved by the committee get across the finish line, which we’ve achieved with this compromise NDAA," John LaBombard, a spokesman for McCaskill, told msnbc. "But she still wants to see more done."

While it’s still unclear whether Gillibrand can pass her reforms as a standalone bill, the measures that did make it into the compromise are the most significant changes on the issue in decades. Gillibrand, McCaskill, and dozens of their colleagues in the Senate and House have made it clear that they will accept no more empty promises from military leaders. The measures included in the defense bill will criminalize retaliation against those who report assaults, will stop commanders from dismissing court martial verdicts, and will mandate dishonorable discharges for those convicted of sexual assault.

The defense bill will also reform how the military handles court martial preliminary hearings. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., proposed those reforms after the alleged victim in a Naval Academy sexual assault case underwent more than 20 hours of intense personal questions during cross-examination by defense attorneys.

Advocates for survivors of military sexual assault are still focused on passing Gillibrand's proposal and helping the approximately 26,000 men and women who the military estimate experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact in the 2012 fiscal year. "Congress has chosen to sidestep the most important military justice reform to come across its desk in history, once again leaving sexual assault victims devastated and betrayed by inaction," Anu Bhagwati, Service Women's Action Network executive director and former Marine Corps captain, said in a statement Monday. "However, the fight is not over. The majority of the American people and justice are on our side. We must continue to fight for justice for our troops by demanding Congress bring this important legislation to the floor for a vote."

This year was notable for the sheer number of high-profile military sexual assault cases that drew public scrutiny, and if any military leaders are anxious to deflect focus away from the Pentagon's dismal sexual assault record, they will have a disappointing new year. Data released in November suggest that the Defense Department's 2014 report on sexual assault will see a record number of reports. The courts martial of two former Naval Academy football players for sexual assault are also scheduled to begin early next year, and progress, or lack of it, will be dissected and analyzed for any evidence of victim-blaming, rape culture, and favoritism.

It will take time to see what difference reforms that did pass will make on reports and convictions, but survivors and their supporters plan to keep pushing  for justice. “We have come too far in our fight to effectively address the crisis of military sexual assault and subsequent victim retaliation to stop now," Nancy Parrish,  President of Protect our Defenders, told msnbc. "We will not stop until the handling of rape and sexual assault cases in the military are taken out of the chain of command and placed in the hands of independent prosecutors."

The Senate is expected to vote on the compromise measure next week.