President Obama took his case for ending the sequester to hundreds of disabled veterans Saturday, saying he protected their benefits from the “reckless” cuts to the federal budget but suggesting next year might be different.
“It’s hurting our military. I made it clear that your veteran’s benefits are exempt from this year’s sequester,” the president said to the applause of hundreds at the Disabled American Veterans' convention in Orlando, Fla. “But I want to tell you going forward the best way to protect the VA care you have earned is to get rid of this sequester altogether.”
The president but the blame squarely on Congress, which returns in about four weeks to work on a new federal budget and increasing the federal debt limit.
“We’ve got these reckless, across-the-board budget cuts called the sequester that are hitting a lot of folks hard,” Obama said. “Congress needs to come together and agree on a responsible plan that reduces our deficit and keeps our promises to our veterans and keeps our promises to future generations.”
The cuts went into effect in March after Congress and the White House failed to agree on a more balanced plan to cut government spending.
Some Republicans have meanwhile said the president shares in the responsibility, considering he signed the 2011 Budget Control Act that raised the debt ceiling and led to sequester.
The president also told the veterans the government is making progress in reducing the backlog of disability claims but acknowledged the slow pace.
"It hasn’t gone as fast as I’ve wanted,” he said.
The staggering backlog of disability claims for compensation for illness and injury caused by military service has been a main concern for veterans.
The number of claims waiting to be processed ballooned under Obama, largely because the administration made it easier for Vietnam veterans who were exposed to the Agent Orange defoliant to get benefits.
The backlog recently has begun to shrink due to steps by the Department of Veterans Affairs, including requiring claims processors to work overtime and transitioning to a new computer system to help speed the judgment of claims. About 780,000 claims are pending. Currently, about 500,000 are considered backlogged, down from about 611,000 in March.
A claim is deemed backlogged if it has been in the system for 125 days, or roughly four months.
Cutting the backlog was part of a five-point plan the president unveiled that also included better health care for veterans and more funding for prosthetics for disabled veterans.
The president also discussed research into traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide among veterans and troops, as well as efforts to help veterans earn college degrees or get the credentials needed to compete for high-skilled jobs.
Beyond the backlogged claims, Republican lawmakers have begun to hammer the department on the issue of patient safety. A congressional hearing in Atlanta this past week focused on poor patient care linked to four deaths. Another hearing is scheduled for next month in Pittsburgh, where five veterans died as a result of a Legionnaire's disease outbreak in 2011-12.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said he hoped Obama would use his appearance at the convention to make a personal commitment to solving both issues.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.