WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senators rallied behind significant changes in military law to curb rape and sexual assault within the ranks, approving steps to protect the victims and barring the "good soldier defense" to ensure evidence alone determines a defendant's fate.
With the women of the Senate leading the fight, lawmakers voted 97-0 Monday for legislation that would force a half-dozen major changes on a military struggling with a pervasive problem that Pentagon leaders concede could cost the services the trust and respect of the public and make it harder to attract men and women to serve in the all-volunteer force.
The measure, which now heads to the House, comes on top of more than 30 changes that Congress approved and President Barack Obama signed into law as part of a defense policy bill just four months ago.
"Unanimous agreement in the U.S. Senate is pretty rare - but rarer still is the kind of sweeping, historic change we've achieved over the past year in the military justice system," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who joined with two Republican women - Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska - in writing the legislation.
Still, that unanimous support was in sharp contrast to last week, when military leaders vigorously opposed a measure by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would have stripped commanders of their authority to prosecute cases and given that power to military lawyers outside the chain of command. The Senate voted 55-45 for that farther-reaching bill, but that was five votes short of the necessary 60.
That vote left some hard feelings in the Senate as Gillibrand's bill divided the typical coalitions, splitting women and the political parties.
"While there have been differences of opinion on how best to combat sexual assault in the military, everyone agrees that the current system is broken," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who backed Gillibrand's effort. "We've made some good reforms today and I know that all the women senators will be monitoring this issue closely to ensure there are real improvements in the way sexual assault is reported and prosecuted in the future."
Ayotte insisted in brief remarks after the vote that this "is not the end of this," while Fischer said Congress' work is not done, with oversight an imperative.
The new legislation would change the military rules of evidence to prohibit the accused from using good military character as an element of his defense in court-martial proceedings unless it was directly relevant to the alleged crime. The "good soldier defense" could encompass a defendant's military record of reliability, dependability, professionalism and reputation as an individual who could be counted on in war and peacetime.
The chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Monday that the "military culture has been slow to grasp the painful truth that even a successful professional can also be a sexual predator."
Under the bill, the defense could still be used in the sentencing phase. The Pentagon has indicated that it is crucial as commanders adjust sentences to allow for plea agreements.
The measure also would give accusers a greater say in whether their cases are litigated in the military or civilian system and would establish a confidential process to allow alleged victims to challenge their separation or discharge from the military. In addition, it would increase the accountability of commanders and extend all changes related to sexual assault cases to the service academies as well.
In cases where a prosecutor wanted to move ahead with a case but a commander disagreed, the civilian service secretary would be the final arbiter.
The Pentagon has reservations about that last provision, suggesting it could have a chilling effect on majors and captains if they think every decision gets kicked up to the service secretary.
Meanwhile on Monday, at Fort Bragg, N.C., Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair was on trial on sexual assault charges. In his court-martial, which began last week, the 51-year-old former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division is accused of twice forcing a female captain to perform oral sex in Afghanistan in 2011 during a three-year extramarital affair. He has admitted to the affair but denied assaulting the woman.
In the House, the bill could be incorporated into the next defense policy bill that will be written in the spring.
"The entire House is proud of the bipartisan reforms on this important issue included in last year's defense authorization bill, and we will review this legislation to determine the best way to consider additional reforms in the House," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The Pentagon has estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted in 2012, based on an anonymous survey. Many victims are still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing abuse, the military says.
Some changes already have been made in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Outraged lawmakers - Democrats and Republicans - rewrote parts last year, stripping commanders of their ability to overturn military jury convictions. That law also requires a civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case and requires that any individual convicted of sexual assault face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal.
The law also provides alleged victims with legal counsel, eliminates the statute of limitations for courts-martial in rape and sexual assault cases and criminalizes retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.