U.S. Senate leader backs big change for how military handles sexual assault

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WASHINGTON, May 18 (Reuters) - The Democratic leader of the U.S. Senate said on Tuesday he supported an effort to shift the way the military handles cases of sexual assault, and expressed hope the Senate would vote on the measure.

"I do support Senator (Kirsten) Gillibrand and Senator (Joni) Ernst's very good proposal on sexual harassment in the military," Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters.

"I would hope to put that on the floor."

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After years of thwarted efforts to take prosecution of such cases out of the hands of commanders, legislation to make prosecution of military sexual assault cases the responsibility of independent prosecutors has been gaining support in Congress. L1N2MM21P

Gillibrand, a Democrat, has pushed for years for legislation to shift the way the military handles cases of sexual assault, citing the thousands of cases reported each year.

The Department of Defense said almost 21,000 service members were sexually assaulted in 2018, the last year for which figures are available, despite efforts to end sexual harassment and assault among the troops.

Ernst, a Republican and military veteran, said last month she decided to back Gillibrand's legislation after the Pentagon failed to improve the situation on its own.

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Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Peter Cooney

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