By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The senator leading a push to overhaul how the U.S. military handles sexual assault complaints made an urgent appeal on Thursday for more support as the measure stood seven votes short of passage before a vote expected as soon as next week.
Fifty-three U.S. senators now back the reform effort led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, still short of the 60 the bill likely will need to get through the Senate.
Gillibrand urged more senators to back the measure at a news conference on Thursday with other bill supporters, advocates and veterans who survived sexual assault.
Gillibrand's proposal would remove the power to decide whether to try sexual assault cases from the military chain of command and put it into the hands of an independent military prosecutor.
"Nowhere in America would we allow a boss to decide if an employee has been sexually assaulted, except in the U.S. military," said Gillibrand, a New York Democrat.
The problem of sexual assault in the U.S. military has been under intense scrutiny in Congress since an annual Pentagon study released in May 2013 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 Department of Defense 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.
Gillibrand's plan is backed by 44 Democrats and nine Republicans but faces stiff opposition from the Pentagon, where top military leaders argue that prosecutions must remain with commanders to maintain good order and discipline.
It also faces resistance in the Senate, where lawmakers failed to approve the plan late last year as an amendment to an annual defense spending bill. The intense lobbying on behalf of Gillibrand's plan - as well as for a rival, less sweeping overhaul also backed by a bi-partisan group of senators - has caused friction within the chamber.
Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill and New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte, chief backers of the alternate plan, held a meeting with reporters on their bill on Thursday that began during the Gillibrand news conference.
Among other things, the McCaskill-Ayotte measure would remove the "good soldier" defense, which refers to the ability of a military court to reduce the sentences of troops who are found guilty of sexual assault but have strong military records.
Fifty-three senators is a majority in the 100-member Senate, but chamber rules mean most legislation requires a "super-majority" of 60 votes to pass.
Gillibrand said she thought she could win over enough of their colleagues to get to 60, but in a possible sign they lacked confidence, several supporters insisted the problem was so severe it should be allowed to pass with a simple majority.
Ayotte and McCaskill said they expect to win the 60 votes. Many lawmakers, including Gillibrand, back both plans.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)