By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With Senate action to overhaul the military's handling of sexual assault cases certain, senators debated an emotionally charged proposal on Wednesday to strip commanders of their power to decide whether many serious criminal charges should go to trial.
The debate came as the Senate considered amendments to its annual defense policy bill - the National Defense Authorization Act - a measure that already includes more than two dozen reforms that will radically alter the way the military responds to violent sex crimes.
Lawmakers including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri introduced amendments seeking further reforms, but they sharply disagreed on Gillibrand's proposal to strip commanders of their power to decide whether serious crimes are prosecuted in court.
The Senate was provoked to action on the sexual assault issue earlier this year after a spate of embarrassing sex-related incidents in the military and a Pentagon report showing a 37 percent jump in the estimated number of cases of unwanted sexual contact last year.
Critics of Gillibrand's amendment said it would undermine the authority of military commanders and fail to boost reporting of sexual assault and rape, but proponents said the military justice system required a fundamental change to address its persistent problems.
"We've had 20 years of promises that this problem would be fixed," said Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat. "Let's be clear: There's only one amendment that puts in place a fundamental change and that's the Gillibrand amendment."
Political parties splintered over the proposal.
Democratic Senator Jack Reed, a former Army Ranger, said it would erode military command authority, and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, an Air Force Reserves judge advocate, said it amounted to telling commanders they are "intellectually insufficient to do this job."
"I cannot stress to my colleagues enough how ill-conceived this system is from a military justice point of view and the damage you are going to do to the command and to the fighting force if you go down this road," Graham said.
But proponents said the military had demonstrated over years that it could not deal with the problem. They voiced skepticism that the changes would affect command authority and told heart-wrenching stories of women and men affected by the crime.
VICTIM'S 'DREAMS DASHED,' SENATOR SAYS
Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said one of her nominees to a military academy had been sexually assaulted at the school and resigned her commission upon graduation.
"Her dreams have been completely dashed by what she experienced," Murkowski said.
It was not clear when the Senate would vote on the proposed amendments on sexual assault. Debate on the wide-ranging bill, which sets policy on everything from defense spending to military procurement, could drag into December, with political leaders still divided on how many amendments to permit.
The measure includes provisions to strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions. It requires a review of decisions not to prosecute cases, forces the dishonorable discharge of sexual assault convicts and makes it a crime to retaliate against victims who report assaults.
McCaskill, who has been a driving force behind many of the reforms, said the bill included 26 changes that "make our military the most victim-friendly criminal justice system in the world," including providing victims with an attorney to represent their interests.
McCaskill and other lawmakers proposed an amendment that included additional reforms, but she sharply criticized Gillibrand's effort to strip commanders of their power to decide whether to prosecute a criminal case by court martial.
She said Gillibrand's amendment assumed victims would "magically" come forward if commanders were stripped of their power to decide whether to prosecute cases.
"Our allies have done this and not in one instance has reporting (of the crime) gone up," she said.
McCaskill questioned other aspects of the amendment, including its failure to seek funds for changes that would be required to prosecute crimes from murder to sexual assault. She said the military estimated the cost at $100 million.
"We have to have a whole new system for arson, for robbery, for theft, for murder, for sexual assault," McCaskill said. "And yet she proactively in her amendment says we can't resource it. That is truly one that makes me scratch my head."
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)