NEW: Obama tells military to "step up their game" or he'll consider other measures
Changes to military law included in sweeping defense bill headed to President's desk
Congress acted after report showed increase in military sexual assault complaints
Defense bill also includes compromise to let Pentagon transfer Guantanamo detainees
U.S. military commanders would no longer be permitted to overrule a court-martial judgment in sexual assault cases under reforms approved by the Senate late Thursday.
That and other steps to combat sexual assault in the armed forces were included in legislation outlining military priorities for the fiscal year ending September 30.
President Barack Obama said he was giving the military one year to implement reforms in preventing sexual assaults, saying the armed forces need to “step up their game” in dealing with the issue.
“If I do not see the kind of progress I expect, then we will consider additional reforms that may be required to eliminate this crime from our military ranks and protect our brave service members who stand guard for us every day at home and around the world,” the President said in a statement issued Friday.
The National Defense Authorization Act passed on a 84-15 vote. It now goes to the White House for the President’s signature.
The sweeping measure that reconciles a similar bill passed by the House last week also includes a compromise to ease limits on transferring terror suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to other countries.
Obama wants to close Guantanamo, which began housing detainees after the 9/11 attacks.
It has been a lightning rod for criticism from civil libertarians and others and the site of high-profile hunger strikes by inmates protesting their treatment.
The legislation would continue to prohibit transfers to the United States.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted the new flexibility for detainee transfers overseas and said the Pentagon anticipates that it would “continue this effort” and “I think we’re making good progress toward that objective.”
The Pentagon has recently revived transfers from the facility, including two announced on Thursday to Sudan. Guantanamo now houses 158 detainees.
Another centerpiece of the bill enacts reforms and policy changes aimed at combating sexual assault in the military.
A Pentagon report earlier this year revealed a troubling increase in the number of military sexual assault cases.
The number of service members anonymously reporting a sexual assault grew by more than 30% over the past two years, according to the report released in May.
The Senate bill included more than 30 provisions or changes to military law, including one that would take away the long-held authority of commanders to dismiss a finding by a court-martial.
It also establishes minimum sentencing guidelines, requires that sexual offenses be included in military personnel records and eliminates the yearlong statute of limitations on rape and sexual assault.
Congress did not adopt a proposal pushed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, to remove sexual assault prosecution from the chain of command.