U.S. lawmakers, reacting to a spate of sexual violence seen as a "cancer" in the armed forces, backed a measure on Wednesday that would strip military commanders of their ability to overturn convictions for rape and other sexual assaults.
The House of Representatives Armed Services Committee voted to include the plan in the National Defense Authorization Act, a $638 billion bill that sets defense policy and authorizes spending levels for the Pentagon.
The panel also voted for amendments setting a minimum sentence for the dishonorable discharge of a service member convicted of sexual assault. This was aimed at increasing protections for victims who file assault complaints and setting a review of programs for male victims of sexual assault in the military.
"When we look at the military unfortunately we have an issue of a culture where perpetrators feel safer than victims do, and our effort is to try to address this," said Republican Representative Michael Turner, co-chairman of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus.
The full House is due to vote on the defense appropriations bill next week.
Lawmakers have been trying to impose change on the armed services after a wave of scandals and new Pentagon data showing a steep rise in unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, that has deeply embarrassed the military.
A study released by the Defense Department in May estimated that cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military, from groping to rape, rose 37 percent in 2012, to about 26,000 cases, but only about 3,300 were actually reported.
The House panel's vote came a day after the Senate Armed Services Committee called the country's senior military officers to an unusual full-panel hearing on seven pieces of legislation on military sexual assault.
In that hearing, the military leaders acknowledged that sexual assault is a serious problem, but insisted that a Senate plan to take cases out of the hands of commanders would go too far by weakening their authority.
The House committee did not go that far, but voted for an amendment to set up a committee to explore taking authority over sexual assault cases out of the hands of commanders.
"This amendment simply equips us with more information so that we know how to eradicate the cancer of military sexual trauma," said Representative Tammy Duckworth, its sponsor, an Army veteran who lost both her legs in the Iraq war.