FILE: As Congress investigates the growing epidemic of sexual assaults within the military, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing last week to demand answers from top uniformed leaders. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Most Americans see sexual assault in the U.S. military as a big issue, but they are divided on whether the problem is best addressed by military leaders or congressional intervention, according to a new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll.

Mirroring a sharp split among lawmakers, 45 percent of the public says Congress should step in and change military law as a primary means to tackle the issue. About the same number, 44 percent, says the problem should be handled by military leaders within the chain of command.

Few people, however, have a great deal of confidence in either the Congress or military leaders to handle the situation, but Congress fares worse. Overall, twice as many Americans say they have “no confidence at all” in Congress as say the same about military brass.

On Wednesday, after an emotional debate, the Senate Armed Services Committee rejected, by a vote of 17 to 9, proposed legislation that would have stripped commanders of the legal power to oversee major criminal cases, including sex crimes. The authority would have been transferred to uniformed prosecutors under the proposal.

About a quarter of the full Senate had co-sponsored the measure, which would have made the biggest changes to military law in three decades. Supporters argued that it was necessary because of a widespread lack of trust among victims that their commanders take such crimes seriously.

“The chain of command has told us for decades that they will solve this problem and they have failed,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the lead sponsor.

The Pentagon vigorously opposed the bill, saying it would undermine the foundation of military culture and discipline by undercutting the authority of commanders. In the end, they had the backing of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, and the panel’s senior Republican, Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.).

“It is harder to hold someone accountable for failure to act if you reduce their power to act,” Levin said. “I believe that doing so would weaken our response to sexual assault.”

The Senate committee did endorse a number of other reforms designed to bolster the military’s prosecution of sex crimes. Those measures would require stricter reviews of all sexual assault cases, give stronger representation to victims and remove commanders’ authority to grant clemency to convicted sex offenders.

Lawmakers who favor stripping commanders of their legal powers said they will try to resurrect their bill when the full Senate takes up the matter. A parallel process is unfolding in the House.

The Pentagon has been reeling from an epidemic of sexual assaults and an embarrassing string of sex-crime scandals. Lawmakers and the White House have demanded action, but agreement on what to do has been elusive.

Last month, the Pentagon released a report estimating that the number of military personnel victimized by sexual assault and related crimes had surged by about 35 percent in the past two years.

According to the Post-Pew poll, nearly four in 10 people say recent allegations of sexual misconduct in the military would be sufficient reason to try to talk women out of joining the service. Among those who said they are paying the most attention to the issue, 51 percent said the concerns were sufficient.

Fifty-four percent see the reports of widespread sexual assault in the armed forces as representing a series of individual acts of misconduct. But a sizable number, 40 percent, perceive an underlying problem in military culture. Still, 63 percent say the issue is as much a problem outside as it is inside the military.

This, too, is a partisan issue: Democrats are about twice as likely as Republicans to blame broad problems within military culture for the reports of sexual assaults. Most Republicans, 69 percent, see an unconnected string of individual acts; that number drops to 44 percent among Democrats.

Partisans also differ on the route to reducing sexual violence. Republicans split in favor of an internal military solution, 57 to 32 percent; Democrats favor congressional action by a similar 58 to 33 percent margin.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans have a great deal of confidence in either the Congress or military leaders to handle the situation.

There are no significant differences between men and women when it comes to whether the sexual assaults are emblematic of cultural issues in the military. Majorities of both sexes say the issue of sexual assaults is similar inside and outside the military.

But 51 percent of women see those that happen inside the armed services as an extremely important issue, compared with 37 percent of men.

The poll was conducted June 6 to 9 among a random national sample of 1,004 adults, using conventional and cellular phones. The margin of sampling error for the full poll is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Cohen is polling director for Capital Insight, Washington Post Media’s independent polling group. Capital Insight pollsters Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement contributed to this report.