By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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, including a measure 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 bill next week.
The act includes $86 billion for the war in Afghanistan and a measure that critics say is intended to force President Barack Obama to keep the Guantanamo Bay military prison open and fund renovations despite his renewed promises to shut it down.
The Senate Armed Services Committee will begin debating its version of the defense authorization bill next week.
Lawmakers have been trying to impose change on the armed forces 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 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 hearing on seven pieces of legislation on sexual assault in the armed forces.
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.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)