By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top White House officials and lawmakers met on Thursday to discuss how to toughen up laws to prevent and punish sexual assault in the military, and provide better support for victims of the crimes.
A bipartisan group of nine senators and seven representatives talked about their ideas to address the long-standing problem which hit the headlines this week, prompting President Barack Obama to angrily vow to "root this out completely."
On Tuesday, the Pentagon released its 2012 annual report on sexual assault in the military, which showed a 37 percent jump in estimated sex crimes to 26,000.
The Air Force was embarrassed after the head of its sexual assault prevention office was charged for drunkenly groping a woman in a parking lot near the Pentagon.
Democratic Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina, who was at the meeting, said the rising statistics were alarming.
"Military sexual assault is a crisis in our armed forces, and one that I have heard about first-hand from service members" in North Carolina, Hagan said on the social networking site Twitter.
The meeting was convened by Valerie Jarrett, a top adviser to Obama, and Tina Tchen, chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama. Among other White House officials who attended the meeting was Kathryn Ruemmler, counsel to the president.
"The group discussed various legislative proposals as well as actions that the administration could take to hold offenders accountable, improve the reporting process, support victims, and work towards the prevention of sexual assault," a White House official said after the meeting.
The official did not spell out those actions.
There are several bills in the works.
Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington and Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who were at the White House meeting, introduced a bill this week which includes measures that would provide victims with a military lawyer, and would refer sexual assault cases to the court-martial level.
Companion legislation are to be introduced in the House of Representatives by Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat.
Ryan, who was at the meeting, called the problem "an epidemic that threatens the very foundations of our military."
Republican Representative Jackie Walorski of Indiana, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the meeting helped develop strategy for passing new legislation.
Walorski has introduced a bill providing whistleblower protections for survivors of military sexual violence.
Ohio Representative Mike Turner, a leading Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said the annual defense policy bills for 2014 could provide vehicles for legislation to combat the problem.
"I feel that there is positive momentum on this issue," said Turner.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Vicki Allen and Mohammad Zargham)