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On Military Sexual Assault Issue, A New Era for An Old Committee

Other bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill may be collapsing around them, but a cadre of Democratic and Republican women serving on the Senate and House Armed Services committees are leveraging their historic clout to respond together to the sexual assault crisis engulfing the U.S. military.

In a Thursday gathering notable not just for its composition but for what it signaled about the direction of two of the oldest and most powerful panels in Congress, 16 legislators from both parties — just two of them men — sat in the White House with top presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett to talk about the path forward on the issue.

Four other top women in the Obama administration also attended. They were Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama's chief of staff; Kathryn Ruemmler, counsel to the president; Liz Sherwood-Randall, White House coordinator for Defense Policy, National Security Staff; and Lynn Rosenthal, White House adviser on violence against women.

One Republican participant, speaking on background, characterized the meeting, held in the Roosevelt Room just across from the Oval Office, as a "huge sign that President Obama has taken a zero-tolerance approach to the crisis."

Those in attendance included Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Rep. Jackie Walorski of Indiana.

"The response," one participant said of the sexual assault crisis, "is going to be led by a brigade of women from across political boundaries.

"It was amazing to be at that table," she said. "We're passionate about this, and women are going to get it done."

Other participants characterized the meeting as an open discussion that focused on addressing two issues — creating a "safety zone" for the reporting of sexual assault so those affected won't fear retribution, and addressing the military's system of prosecuting allegations of rape and other sexual assaults.

Much of the current heat around the issue was generated by a Pentagon survey released this week that estimated that 26,000 people in the military were sexually assaulted last year.

The issue, of course, is as old as the military itself, but the record number of women serving on Congress' armed services committees — seven on the Senate panel, a dozen on the House committee — has given heft and urgency to the response.

Gillibrand, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, plans to introduce legislation next week that would shift control of prosecutorial decisions from military commanders to military prosecutors. Top military brass have already begun pushing back on the proposal.

Her bill would also prevent commanders from changing — either reversing or dismissing — verdicts in sexual assault cases.

There has already been a slew of legislation sponsored by female members of Congress, including:

-- a House bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California and Republican Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada, that would amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice to prohibit sexual acts and sexual contact between military instructors including drill instructors and recruiting commanders and their trainees;

-- a Senate bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a member of the Judiciary Committee, and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, that among its aims would require commanding offers who receive a report of a sexual assault to act on it within 24 hours and would prohibit convicted sexual offenders from enlisting or being commissioned in the armed forces;

-- a Senate bill, co-sponsored by Ayotte and Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, that would create a special counsel for victims of sexual assault committed by a member of the armed forces;

-- a House bill, co-sponsored by Walorski and Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California, that would require an investigation of allegations of "retaliatory personnel actions" taken against military personnel who have made a report of sexual assault.

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