WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday threw his support behind a measure that would give military prosecutors, rather than commanders, the power to decide which sexual assault cases to try.
Reid's remarks bolstered prospects that the plan could clear the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, even though top Pentagon leaders oppose it. He became the 50th senator to say publicly that he would vote yes, and the third in the last day.
The Senate could vote on the contentious measure as early as today.
Its sponsor, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said Reid had shown "extraordinary leadership" in publicly embracing the bill, which has divided members of the Democratic caucus.
"I am deeply appreciative for his thoughtful consideration, and after meeting directly with survivors, heeding their clear call for change," Gillibrand said.
Other Democrats said they thought Reid's support was a sign that the plan could pass the Senate. "It will give it a huge boost," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a co-sponsor of the measure.
But passage is far from guaranteed. Some Democrats, led by Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, are pushing for a measure that does not go as far as Gillibrand's, which would take sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command.
The McCaskill plan, which is supported by the Pentagon and co-written by Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the powerful chairman of the Armed Services Committee, would strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury verdicts and order dishonorable discharge or dismissal for anyone convicted of sexual assault.
The issue has been an especially tense one for the Senate's 20 women, who have felt torn between two respected colleagues. Seventeen of them have signed on to the Gillibrand proposal, including two Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Gillibrand says victims don't trust the chain of command to mete out justice, or they fear or have experienced witnessed retaliation. She points to the Pentagon estimate of 26,000 military members who may have been sexually assaulted last year, based on an anonymous survey. Thousands of victims were unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the Pentagon said.