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Senate seen debating change in military sex assault law this month

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III (R) testifies about pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military at a Senat
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III (R) testifies about pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military at a Senat

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate is expected to begin debate within the next two weeks on legislation seeking sweeping changes in the way the military handles complaints of sexual assault, several senators said on Tuesday, as backers set a last push to win enough votes for passage.

Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand plans to introduce the legislation to remove responsibility for prosecuting cases of unwanted sexual contact from the military chain of command as an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization bill. The bill is due to be debated on the Senate floor before the last week of November.

Gillibrand's staff said 46 senators - including 38 Democrats and 8 Republicans - have publicly announced their support for her plan, which faces opposition from many U.S. military leaders who worry that it will reduce commanders' authority.

The measure needs 51 votes to pass.

A group of at least six senators - Gillibrand and fellow Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer, Richard Blumenthal, and Mazi Hironi and Republican Senators Chuck Grassley and Lisa Murkowski - will hold a news conference on Wednesday about their push to attract at least five more votes.

The Pentagon has been struggling to deal with a big jump in estimated cases of unwanted sexual contact, as well as a spate of high-profile cases of sexual assault, including some involving personnel charged with combating the crime.

An annual Pentagon study released this year estimated that unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, jumped by 37 percent in 2012 to 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year.

The issue has prompted outrage among lawmakers. In addition to Gillibrand's effort, others are pushing legislation to force the military to be more accountable in handling sexual assault cases.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Christopher Wilson)

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