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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 the military.
Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to Obama, and Tina Tchen, chief of staff for first lady Michelle Obama, spoke with House and Senate members from both parties.
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.
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 to prevent this crime, and this meeting is one positive step forward for advancing solutions.”
Sixteen lawmakers met with Jarrett and Tchen, both of whom are members of the president’s Council on Women and Girls.
The officials 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.
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; currently, servicemembers have to request retention of those records.
President Obama did not attend the meeting. He was traveling to Austin to launch a series of tours focusing on middle-class jobs.
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.
Obama called the findings outrageous and demanded that the Pentagon take action.
“Bottom line is I have no tolerance for this,” Obama 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 assault victims 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., has proposed a bill that would take the reporting of sexual assaults out of the military’s chain of command.
Other senators at the meeting, according to a White House statement: Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Deb Fischer, R-Neb.; Kay Hagan, D-N.C.; Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; Jeanne Shaheen, R-N.H.
The conference also featured seven House members: Reps. Susan Davis, D-Calif.; Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.; Tim Ryan, D-Ohio; Jackie Speier, D-Calif.; Niki Tsongas, D-Mass.; Michael Turner, R-Ohio; and Jackie Walorski, R-Ind.
Aside from Jarrett and Tchen, other administration officials also met with the lawmakers: Liz Sherwood Randall, White House coordinator for defense policy with National Security Staff; Kathryn Ruemmler, counsel to the president; Miguel Rodriguez, director of office of legislative affairs; and Lynn Rosenthal, White House adviser on violence against women.