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Pressure Building to Address Military Sexual Assault in Defense Bill

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
McKeon seemed willing Thursday to address the issue of sexual assault in the defense bill.

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.

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