A Democrat-sponsored bill aimed at tackling sexual assault cases within the military gained traction this week after two conservative Republicans joined as supporters.
On Tuesday, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas signed on to a group of 33 backers of the Military Justice Improvement Act, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, New York Democrat. The bill would take away a commander's ability to court-martial service members accused of sexual assault and give that authority to an officer at a colonel rank or equivalent who is outside the accused's chain of command.
Military chiefs staunchly oppose the move. They argue it would weaken commanders' ability to maintain discipline within their units, which would be more effective in combating the problem estimated at 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact per year.
In 2010, the Pentagon estimated only 13.5 percent of suspected cases were reported.
"I'm convinced our commanders in the military want to see this problem go away, that they understand, they have heard the message and they are working to make it go away," Mr. Cruz said at a news conference Tuesday.
"But unfortunately, this problem has persisted. Despite good-faith, repeated efforts, this problem has persisted."
However, Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is siding with military officials, supporting proposals that would bring reforms but keep prosecution within the chain of command.
"It's commanders who make it work. They give orders. They discipline people who violate those orders, and that's what you want," said Mr. Levin at a Washington breakfast meeting with reporters on Tuesday.
"The Gillibrand approach doesn't do anything in the area of removing the decision-maker on prosecution," he said.
"That decision-maker is now a colonel with three to 10,000 people under his or her command. That doesn't change the behavior at the lower level. The problem is that victims here are intimidated. They don't report or they're ashamed, or they're embarrassed at the lower level."
There are a number of proposals addressing military sexual assault in both the House and Senate's 2014 National Defense Authorization Act. They include providing accusers with military legal counsels, relieving commanders who fail to properly manage sexual assault allegations, and reviewing decisions not to pursue court-martials against those accused.
The proposals came after a spate of recent military sexual assault scandals, and they have become a top priority in a Senate that has more female members now than ever before.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, who supports Mrs. Gillibrand's bill, is one of those female members who say the problem of military sexual assault has gone on for decades and needs to be addressed by Congress.
"It's enough with the words. It's enough with the empty promises. It's time for some real change. And Sen. Gillibrand is leading us toward that change," she told reporters Tuesday.
Mrs. Gillibrand said, "This is not a Democratic idea. It is not a Republican idea. It is a good idea that meets the needs of victims, creates transparency and accountability and creates the needed objectivity that this issue deserves."
Her bill is expected to be debated next week in the Senate.