Top aides to President Obama met with members of Congress on Thursday
to discuss legislation to crack down on the growing number of sexual assaults in
Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president, and Tina Tchen, chief of staff for first lady Michelle Obama, spoke with House and Senate members from both parties. Jarrett and Tchen are members of the president's Council on Women and Girls.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the meeting reflects Obama's concern about a new report that shows a disturbing rise in sexual assaults by servicemembers. "He has zero tolerance for sexual assault in the military," Carney said.
A report this week says up to 26,000 military members were sexually assaulted last year, and sexual assaults in the military jumped by more than one-third since 2010.
They discussed a variety of pending proposals in Congress to change the military's justice system to better deal with sexual assaults. They ranged from rules about the treatment of accusers to eliminating provisions that allow commanders to override verdicts.
One of the meeting participants, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said that "while we have made some progress in establishing new policies to address sexual assault in the ranks, the recent report underscores the critical need for continued action ... and this meeting is one positive step forward for advancing solutions."
Klobuchar and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have a bill that would require the military to retain restricted reports of sexual assault for 50 years; now servicemembers have to request retention of those records.
When the report came out, Obama called the findings outrageous and demanded that the Pentagon take action. "Bottom line is I have no tolerance for this," he said. "I have communicated this to the secretary of Defense. We're going to communicate this again to folks up and down the chain in areas of authority, and I expect consequences."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was among those who met with Jarrett and Tchen, spokesman Matt McAlvanah said. Murray and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who also attended the White House meeting, have proposed a bill that would provide special counsels to victims of assault to help guide them through the military justice system.
"We must do more to root out the culture that fosters this behavior and provide substantive assistance to those who face these tragedies alone," Murray said in introducing her bill.
Ayotte said laws need to be strengthened "so that all victims can come forward without fear of retribution."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has asked leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee to use the Defense Department authorization bill as a way to improve the military justice system with regard to sexual assaults.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., plans to introduce legislation next week that would remove felony decisions from the chain of command.
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