The Senate bill, designed to hold the $35.7-billion industry more accountable, mirrors legislation introduced in the House by Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) and comes days after Kerry (D-Mass.) led a Senate subcommittee hearing examining cruise ship safety.
"Murky legal jurisdictions in international waters are no longer an excuse for failing to report serious crimes so that they may be effectively prosecuted," Kerry said. "If U.S. passengers are at risk, then U.S. law should hold the industry accountable for their safety."
For years, victims of crime aboard cruise ships and their relatives have alleged that cruise lines skirt U.S. regulations by hiring foreign crews and registering ships in foreign countries.
Cruise ships are not required under U.S. law to report crimes that occur outside U.S. territorial waters, Kerry said, though it remains a matter of debate what crimes are required to be reported, to which agency and who has jurisdiction.
A number of high-profile incidents -- and increasingly vocal advocates for victims -- have prompted lawmakers to hold several congressional hearings.
At the state level, the California Senate recently approved a bill to place "ocean rangers" aboard ships, but the Assembly's Public Safety Committee killed the legislation this week after intensive lobbying by the industry.
A spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Assn. said it was looking forward to working with federal lawmakers.
In the past, the industry has maintained that no additional oversight was needed because there was no proof that crime was a serious problem aboard ships.
Guiselle Nunez of San Jose-based Mundi Travel agency said: "The premise that cruises are unsafe is just not true or we wouldn't be selling cruises."
Under a voluntary reporting agreement among the FBI, the Coast Guard and cruise lines, 489 serious incidents aboard cruise ships were reported during a 13-month period from April 1, 2007, to April 30, 2008, including one suspicious death, eight missing people and 83 sexual assaults.
The Senate committee requested a breakdown by cruise lines, the number of crimes investigated and how many led to prosecution, but the FBI has not provided that information.
In California, Royal Caribbean officials testified before the Legislature that five serious incidents occurred aboard its 140 sailings from California ports during a nine-month period.
But Matsui and Kerry said they had heard many troubling reports from passengers, including Sacramento resident Laurie Dishman, who said she was raped by a security guard on a ship.
Dishman, who was photographed with bruise marks around her neck, said crew members handed her trash bags and told her to collect her own evidence.
The legislation introduced by Kerry and Matsui would require cruise lines to train crew members in crime scene investigation and to keep sexual assault evidence collection kits on board.
"The inaction of the cruise industry and its unwillingness to take common-sense steps to protect its passengers is what warrants major legislation," Matsui said.
Royal Caribbean, for one, said it was making changes. The cruise line, which faced intense scrutiny after a honeymooner went missing in 2005, said it planned to have peepholes on all its cabin doors by the end of the year.
Ken Carver, president and founder of International Cruise Victims, said his organization would continue pressuring the industry until it addressed all of the group's concerns. "Will we win this year? I don't know, " he said. "But at least we're giving them heartburn."