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By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate Armed Services Committee endorsed several steps to improve prosecution of military sexual assault on Wednesday during a rare open debate of its annual defense policy bill, but it killed a controversial proposal opposed by Pentagon leaders.
The panel, on a 17-9 vote, approved a plan by committee chairman Carl Levin that would continue to let military commanders decide whether to bring sexual assault cases to trial but would add levels of automatic review by more senior leaders.
Levin's proposal replaced a controversial plan by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that would have taken the decision over prosecuting sexual assault out of the hands of a victim's commander and placed it with independent military prosecutors.
The vote, which defied party ideology, followed an emotional debate during a rare open working session by the committee to draft measures to combat sexual assault for the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which sets military policy.
The panel usually writes the bill behind closed doors and unveils it once the measure is ready for full Senate consideration. After debating the sexual assault provisions, the committee went back into closed session to discuss other portions of the bill.
Rejection of the proposal to remove sexual assault prosecution from the chain of command set the stage for a fight over the issue on the Senate floor. Aides for Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, have indicated she will push for consideration of the proposal by the full chamber.
"The chain of command has told us for decades that they will solve this problem and they have failed," Gillibrand said in pressing fellow senators to accept her subcommittee's draft proposals on sexual assault for the annual National Defense Authorization Act.
She noted the military's "zero tolerance" policy toward sexual harassment began more than two decades ago when former Vice President Dick Cheney was secretary of defense under President George Herbert Walker Bush.
Levin's alternative would leave decisions on prosecuting sexual assault in the hands of the military chain of command but would require an independent review by a more senior military leader if charges are not pursued in court. It would also make it a crime to retaliate against those who report sexual assault.
"We have a serious problem with sexual assault in the military," said Levin, a Michigan Democrat. "However, I do not support removing the authority of commanders to prosecute sexual assault cases and putting that decision in the hands of military lawyers outside of the chain of command.
"I believe that doing so would weaken our response to sexual assault," he said.
Levin's proposal was endorsed by senior members from both parties, including Republicans Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona as well as Democrats Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
Texas Republican Ted Cruz and New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen backed Gillibrand's proposals.
Debate over the military's sexual assault problem follows an annual Pentagon study showing that unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, jumped 37 percent in 2012, to an estimated 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year. It also follows a spate of high-profile sexual assault cases.
A national survey released on Wednesday showed 81 percent of Americans view the military's sexual assault problem as an extremely important or very important issue.
The poll, by the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post, also found that 63 percent of the public sees the sexual assault problem as being about the same both inside and outside the military.
The National Defense Authorization Act is one of several defense measures currently being addressed by Congress. On Wednesday the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee approved defense spending of $512.5 billion for the 2014 fiscal year beginning in October. It also approved $85.8 billion for war funding.
The amount was $28.1 billion above the spending caps set by Congress in 2011, raising the prospect for another year of automatic across-the-board defense budget cuts. The Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to pass its budget proposal.
(Reporting By David Alexander; Editing by Bill Trott)