By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate voted 97-0 on Monday to pass reforms in how the military handles sexual assault cases, but it probably will be months before the changes become law.
The measure must still be approved by the House of Representatives, where Democratic and Republican aides said it is unlikely to be up for a vote until later in 2014.
Backed by Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, the bill includes significant changes such as eliminating the "good soldier" defense allowing a court to reduce the sentences of offenders who have strong military records.
It also strengthens prosecutors' role in advising commanders on whether to go to court martial. But it falls short of shifting the decision on whether to pursue assault cases from top commanders to independent military prosecutors.
That proposed change in the military justice system was part of a separate bill on sexual assault in the military, backed by another Democratic senator, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, which failed in the Senate last week.
Lawmakers and the military have been debating for months how to handle sex crimes in the ranks after a report almost a year ago that unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, had jumped by 37 percent in 2012, to 26,000 cases.
Despite deep divides in Congress over how best to deal with the issue, lawmakers passed reforms late last year in the 2014 defense authorization law. Those included stripping commanders of their power to overturn jury convictions and assigning an independent legal counsel to victims who report assaults.
McCaskill said she hoped the Senate's strong support for her bill would help get the measure through the House. "I'll continue fighting ... to get this bill across the finish line," she said in a statement.
'CANCER' IN THE RANKS
High-profile military sexual assault cases, some involving defense officials responsible for prosecuting sex crimes, also contributed to charges that the Pentagon has not been serious enough about stopping an epidemic of sexual assaults seen as a "cancer" in the armed forces.
Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Morse, a top Army sexual assault prosecutor, was suspended recently pending an investigation into allegations he groped a female colleague, a military spokesman said last week.
And Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair pleaded guilty last week to having an adulterous affair, asking female officers for nude photos and possessing pornography on his laptop. A military trial is under way over sexual assault charges, which he has denied.
The bill that was passed on Monday is unlikely to go to the House as a standalone measure. Instead it is likely to be included as part of a bill expected later this year that authorizes Pentagon spending.
"Right now we're looking at the most likely vehicle for getting it passed in the House, which is probably as an amendment to the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act)," a Democratic aide said.
A Republican aide said the defense bill could be passed out of the House in June. But it would have to get through the Senate before becoming law, a process that has taken months.
President Barack Obama - who has ordered a review of the military's handling of sexual assault cases - signed last year's defense authorization bill into law in late December.
(Editing by Alistair Bell, Lisa Shumaker and Ken Wills)