By DONNA CASSATA, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers outraged by sexual assaults in the military are moving swiftly to address the problem, tackling legislation that would strip commanders of their authority to overturn convictions in rape and assault cases.
The House Armed Services Committee plans to consider a sweeping, $638 billion defense policy bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. Debate over numerous provisions on sexual assault, the war in Afghanistan, missile defense and the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is expected throughout the day Wednesday. A final panel vote is likely late into the evening.
The House committee's action comes one day after senators grilled senior military leaders about steps the services are taking to combat sexual assault as a series of high-profile cases and the growing number of incidents have shone a harsh spotlight on the services.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, especially the panel's seven female senators, challenged the military's mostly male leadership on whether they understood the difference between relatively minor sexual offenses and serious crimes that deserve swift and decisive action.
"Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force. Not every single commander believes what a sexual assault is. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told the beribboned military leaders at a nearly daylong hearing Tuesday.
The New York Democrat is pushing legislation – with the support of 18 other senators – that would strip commanders of the authority to decide when criminal charges are filed against service members who report to them and would remove the ability of senior officers to convene courts-martial.
The military leaders were unified in opposing the legislation, warning that limits on commanders' authority would undercut their ability to preserve good order and discipline in their units. At the same time, they conceded they had stumbled in dealing with a problem that, in the words of Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, was "like a cancer."
"I think I took my eye off the ball a bit in the commands that I had," Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee, mentioning the demands on the military after more than a decade of war.
Frustration among the senators seemed to boil over as they discussed recent cases and statistics on sexual assault that underscored the challenges the Defense Department and Congress face.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Navy veteran of Vietnam, said a woman came to him the previous night and said her daughter wanted to join the military. She asked McCain if he could give her his unqualified support.
"I could not," McCain said. "I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment over the continued reports of sexual misconduct in our military. We've been talking about the issue for years, and talk is insufficient."
The Pentagon estimated in a recent report that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2011, based on an anonymous survey of military personnel. While the number of sexual assaults that members of the military actually reported rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012, thousands of victims were still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the report said.
Military leaders are more receptive to House legislation sponsored by Reps. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, and Niki Tsongas, D-Mass. Their measure, which the full committee was considering Wednesday, would strip commanders of the discretion to reverse a court-martial ruling, except in cases involving minor offenses. Commanders also would be barred from reducing a guilty finding by a court-martial to guilty of a lesser offense.
The measure also would require that anyone found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy or an attempt to commit any of those offenses receive a punishment that includes a dismissal from military service or a dishonorable discharge.
The legislation eliminates the five-year statute of limitations on trial by court-martial for sexual assault and sexual assault of a child. It also establishes the authority for military legal counsel to provide legal assistance to victims of sex-related offenses and requires enhanced training for all military and civilian attorneys involved in sex-related cases.
Separately, the House Appropriations defense subcommittee was meeting behind closed doors to vote on a defense spending bill that contains $513 billion for core Pentagon operations and $86 billion for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It reprises an existing provision that requires the Pentagon to keep accused terrorists and other prisoners at the military-run detention center in Cuba rather than allow them to be transferred to U.S. soil for civilian trials. The veterans bill, which also would fund military base construction, contains a companion provision blocking potential efforts to upgrade military facilities to accommodate Guantanamo detainees.
Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.