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Pressure Building to Address Military Sexual Assault in Defense Bill

Lawmakers from both parties on Thursday expressed optimism that they could work with the White House on a number of legislative proposals aimed at getting the military’s growing epidemic of sexual assault under control.

Days after the Pentagon announced a surprising 37 percent spike in sexual assaults in 2012, senior White House officials met with lawmakers to discuss approaches to fixing the problem.

Republican Rep. Michael R. Turner of Ohio, who co-chairs the House’s Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, said the White House was in “listening mode” about the specific legislative proposals discussed at the meeting.

“I think the White House is taking this very seriously and is looking to work in cooperation with Congress on the pending legislation,” Turner said in an interview after the meeting.

Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts, who co-chairs the caucus with Turner, called the meeting “a clear indication that they want to work with members of Congress who have been so engaged in this issue over the years.”

The session comes amid a growing uproar in Congress over the Pentagon’s worsening sexual assault problem. The issue is quickly becoming a major feature in the debate over this year’s defense authorization measure.

The Defense Department released a new report this week on sexual assaults that indicates that the number of these crimes grew 37 percent, from an estimated 19,000 in 2010 to 26,000 last year.

The report was released one day after news broke that the Air Force officer in charge of the service’s sexual assault prevention and response branch was arrested over the weekend in Arlington, Va., and charged with sexual battery — a development that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III called “incomprehensible” during a hearing Thursday with the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

Turner, who has worked with Tsongas to insert new policy governing sexual assault into the last several defense authorization bills, said he has received assurances from House Armed Services Committee leaders that their latest bill will be included when the panel marks up the fiscal 2014 measure in the coming weeks.

Specifically, the bill would eliminate military commanders’ ability to reverse convictions for any charge except in the case of minor offenses, a move that has the support of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. It would also limit commanders’ ability to commute or lessen sentences.

In addition, the Turner-Tsongas bill (HR 1867) would ensure those found guilty of rape, sexual assault, sodomy, or an attempt to commit any of those crimes, are — at a minimum — dismissed or dishonorably discharged from the military. The five-year statute of limitations within the military’s justice system for sexual assault cases would be eliminated, and legal assistance services available to victims would be expanded.

Turner said he is also looking to include other provisions in the authorization measure, such as extending previously enacted policies to the Coast Guard.

The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services panel, Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, signalled Thursday his willingness to address the issue in the defense bill.

“The House Armed Services Committee has worked in a bi-partisan manner to implement reforms designed to combat sexual assault,” McKeon said Thursday in a written statement. “Many members of the committee have put forward meritorious proposals for this year’s defense authorization bill to carry those reforms forward.”

Meanwhile, Turner said he would support a proposal moving through the Senate that would move decision for prosecution up the chain of command in some instances. The bill (S 871), introduced by New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, would refer cases to the general court martial level when sexual assault charges are filed or to the next superior competent authority when there is a conflict of interest in the immediate chain of command.

After the meeting, Murray applauded the White House for calling a bicameral, bipartisan meeting. “I think we’re going to get some good work done,” she said.

‘Weaken the System’

Pentagon officials have welcomed many reforms offered on Capitol Hill, including the legislative efforts to prevent a commander from overturning convictions. But they reiterated this week their opposition to taking the decision for prosecuting these crimes completely out of the chain of command, as has been proposed by a vocal minority on Capitol Hill.

To do so, Defense Secretary Hagel told reporters earlier this week, “would weaken the system.”

“The ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure,” he said.

Bypassing the chain of command was “not seriously discussed in the room” during the White House meeting, Turner said.

That idea is the most controversial of the legislative proposals offered so far and is unlikely to get far in Congress this year. But some key lawmakers have left the door slightly ajar.

“I don’t rule it out, and I don’t rule it in,” Tsongas said. “I think we have to get it right.”

On Wednesday, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wrote Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and ranking member James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., asking them to address the issue in their fiscal 2014 defense policy bill, which is being marked up next month.

Specifically, Reid asked the panel to eliminate military commanders’ ability to reverse convictions for sexual assault. “This authority, which can currently be exercised without any stated reason or regard for the merits of a case, cannot continue to be an impediment to accountability and justice,” Reid wrote.

Levin said Thursday he expected his panel would act on the authority to overturn verdicts, and also consider changes to a commander’s power to convene judicial proceedings. Inhofe, however, has raised a series of concerns regarding such changes.

Other legislative proposals include a bill (S 548) from Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska that would require the secretary of Defense to retain restricted reports of sexual assault for at least 50 years. The bill also would establish preferred policy regarding the disposition of sexual assault cases through courts martial and prohibit anyone previously convicted of sexual assault from serving in the military.

Like many lawmakers this week, McKeon expressed frustration with the Defense Department’s inability to reverse this trend.

“Legislation can only do so much. We can go a long way toward holding perpetrators accountable and ensuring victims receive justice, but those steps all happen after an assault has taken place,” McKeon said. “Commanders must take responsibility for the culture and climate of their units, a climate that appears, at a minimum, not to take this problem seriously.”

During the Thursday meeting, lawmakers and White House officials discussed issues that “went beyond a legislative remedy,” including the need for culture changes and the fact that the vast majority of victims are reticent to report these crimes, Turner said.

Frank Oliveri contributed to this report.

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