Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III suggested to lawmakers on Thursday that he supported changes to the laws that govern how the military handles sexual assault cases, but he declined to endorse a measure by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, that would cut out the military chain of command from other serious felonies.
Mr. Austin’s support for changes around sexual assault cases represents a major shift for military leadership, which has long resisted such changes, but his opposition to Ms. Gillibrand’s proposed changes to the military justice system could set up a potential showdown between a large group of senators and the Pentagon.
“Clearly, what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working,” Mr. Austin said in his opening remarks before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “One assault is too many. The numbers of sexual assaults are still too high, and the confidence in our system is still too low.”
Mr. Austin instead appeared to endorse the recommendations of a panel he appointed to study the issue earlier this year. That panel recommends that independent military lawyers take over the role that commanders currently play in deciding whether to court-martial those accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment or domestic violence.
“The issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Mr. Austin said, “are the problems we are trying to resolve and improve.”
President Biden has endorsed Ms. Gillibrand’s approach, at least for now, and her bill has gained support from at least 70 members of the Senate — including many who voted against the same bill in 2014, arguing it would undermine commanders — and key members in the House.
Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, believes Ms. Gillibrand’s bill goes too far and has been working behind the scenes with Pentagon officials to change it.
“I want to be sure that whatever changes to the U.C.M.J. that I recommend to the president and ultimately to this committee, that they are scoped to the problem we are trying to solve, have a clear way forward on implementation, and ultimately restore the confidence of the force in the system,” Mr. Austin said, referring to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is the foundation of the American military legal system. “You have my commitment to that, and also my commitment to working expeditiously as you consider legislative proposals.”
Mr. Austin’s remarks Thursday could set off an intense political battle that will test the power of Ms. Gillibrand among her bipartisan Senate allies including Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, who could be forced to pick sides in determining the measure’s fate, and the White House.
In either event, it seems clear that commanders are all but certain to lose full control over sexual assault prosecutions. “Change is coming to the department,” Mr. Reed said Thursday in reference to the issue.
Ms. Gillibrand and one of her Republican colleagues on the committee, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, an Army veteran, pressed Mr. Austin further on his views of the issue during the hearing. Ms. Gillibrand suggested that keeping other crimes off the table would contribute to racial disparities in court-martial cases, an argument that could be part of a new strategy to appeal to both remaining skeptical members of Congress and Mr. Austin.
But while Mr. Austin took pains to praise Ms. Gillibrand’s work, crediting her “incredible dedication” for any changes that are made, he also made it fairly clear that he did not support the broad nature of her legislation.
“As you know, Senator, I always have an open…