By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers announced a renewed push on Wednesday to make sweeping changes in the way the military handles complaints of sexual assault, but they face a tough fight attracting the 60 votes they will likely need to get their plan through the Senate.
Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said 46 senators - 38 Democrats and eight Republicans - support her proposal to remove responsibility for prosecuting cases of unwanted sexual conduct from the military chain of command and put it in the hand of an independent judge.
But she has only about two weeks to win over at least 14 more senators before the measure comes before the full Senate as an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act.
Her plan faces stiff opposition from the Pentagon, where military leaders argue that prosecutions must remain with military commanders to maintain good order and discipline.
She also faces resistance in the Senate, where lawmakers including Democrat Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, say the military's rules for handling sexual assault complaints should be reformed, but the responsibility should not be removed from the chain of command.
An annual Pentagon study released this year estimated that incidents of unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, jumped by 37 percent in 2012 to 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year.
The Pentagon has also been struggling to deal with a spate of high-profile cases of sexual assault, including some involving personnel charged with combating the crime.
The Senate is expected to begin debate on the National Defense Authorization Act before the last week of November. Several lawmakers said they expect opponents of Gillibrand's plan would use Senate procedural rules to ensure that it needs 60 votes - not a majority of 51 - for passage.
Gillibrand and other supporters of her proposal argued on Wednesday that it will enhance military readiness and strengthen morale.
"When young adults commit to serving their country and defending our freedoms, they deserve to know their own rights will be protected, including access to justice," Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa told a news conference.
Ariana Klay, a former Marine officer and Iraq War veteran who was a victim of sexual assault, told the news conference how military rules forced her to seek justice from a commander who said she deserved bad treatment because she wore makeup and running shorts.
She said she faced a year of retaliation after filing a complaint before her accused rapists' trial, in which she endured 15 hours of degrading questioning on the witness stand.
"Even an alleged terrorist on U.S. soil has more protection than a U.S. Marine," her husband, Ben Klay, also a former Marine, told the news conference, his voice breaking as he discussed his wife's case.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)