WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon posted a narrow win Wednesday as a House panel endorsed leaving the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders.
In an emotionally charged debate, the House Armed Services Committee rejected a measure that would have stripped the long-standing authority to decide whether to pursue a case, especially those related to sexual assault, and hand the job to seasoned military lawyers. The vote was 34-28.
Pentagon leaders vigorously oppose the change in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, arguing that commanders should have more responsibility, not less, for the conduct of the men and women they lead in war and peacetime. Female lawmakers in the Senate and House have questioned whether the military's mostly male leadership understands differences between relatively minor sexual offenses and serious crimes that deserve swift and decisive justice.
"We have not fixed this," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., sponsor of the measure.
Offering their support for the measure were two House members who have experienced war — one who lost both legs and partial use of an arm in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq and one who served in the 29th Infantry Brigade's medical operations near Baghdad.
Both veterans are women.
"I love the military with every bone in my body," Rep. Tammy Duckworth said. "I am devastated to see how sexual predators are treated."
The Illinois Democrat said she "gradually, painfully" came to the conclusion that decisions on prosecution should be taken out of the military chain of command.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said the voices of the service members who are the victims need to be heard.
Opponents of the measure maintained that commanders must be held accountable, and that the military leadership was working to address the problem.
Last week, the Pentagon said reports by members of the military of sexual assaults jumped by an unprecedented 50 percent last year, in what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared a "clear threat" to both male and female service members' lives and well-being.
Overall, there were 5,061 reports of sexual abuse filed in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, compared with 3,374 in 2012. About 10 percent of the 2013 reports involved incidents that occurred before the victims joined the military, up from just 4 percent in 2012.
The House committee's action came during a marathon session to craft a $601 billion defense policy bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
The overall spending matches a deficit-driven, bipartisan budget agreement, and reflects a new phase for the Pentagon after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Late Wednesday, the committee voted overwhelmingly for a measure by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., that would thwart Navy efforts to restrict access to tobacco to members of the service and the Marine Corps. The vote was 53-9.
Working within spending constraints, the Pentagon is seeking flexibility to ensure service members are ready to fight and the military can handle emerging threats.
"Sustaining our edge in the face of new strategic and fiscal challenges will require Congress' partnership in making tough choices, always looking at our broader national interests instead of narrow constituencies," Hagel said this week.
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