President Obama on Monday Tuesday reiterated his pledge to veto defense budget bills if Congress does not lift mandatory spending caps on several federal agencies, saying Republican funding plans jeopardize national security.
"(Sequestration) is not the way to keep our armed forces ready … or to keep America strong," he told attendees at the Veterans of Foreign Wars annual convention in Pittsburgh. "These mindless cuts need to end."
The comments were greeted with applause from veterans advocates even though the threat could undermine a host of military policy updates and reforms in coming weeks.
Lawmakers are finalizing details of the 2016 defense authorization bill this week — legislation that includes provisions to overhaul the military retirement system and the Pentagon's acquisition processes.
But the bill also is based on a $612 billion spending plan for the Defense Department in fiscal 2016 that uses temporary war funds to sidestep spending caps mandated under the 2011 Budget Control Act.
Republicans have insisted the plan fully funds military needs without providing unnecessary money for other government agencies, and accused Obama of putting bloated federal programs ahead of troops’ needs.
But in his speech to the VFW, Obama again argued that national defense depends on more than military might and that the spending caps are hurting diplomatic and homeland security operations.
"We cannot expect the military to bear the entire burden of our national security alone," he told the crowd. "Everyone has to bear that."
Obama said his budget plans — which would require lawmakers to repeal the Budget Control Act — would "keep the military strong" despite drawdowns in active-duty end strength in coming years. He accused his critics of "playing partisan politics when it comes to national security," reversing the same charge his opponents have used against him for months.
VFW officials have made ending sequestration their top lobbying priority in recent months, and issued a statement days before the convention calling it the "most significant military readiness and national security threat of the 21st century."
Obama's address largely focused on military and national security issues, with more lobbying for the newly announced nuclear deal with Iran and discussion of ongoing military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But the president also acknowledged the need for further reforms within the Veterans Affairs Department, still under harsh public scrutiny more than a year after its former secretary was forced to resign following revelations of widespread records manipulation and care delays.
"Whenever there are any missteps, there are no excuses," Obama told the convention attendees.
He said the demand on the VA for health care is exceeding capacity, and officials will need to work with Congress to ensure the department has appropriate funding flexibility to provide services through the end of the fiscal year.