(Updates with Obama quotes, budget debate beginning in second paragraph.)
Aug. 30 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama told a military veterans group that he’ll maintain funding for their health and welfare programs amid the drive to cut the federal deficit.
“We’re facing some tough choices as we put our fiscal house in order,” Obama said in remarks at the American Legion’s 93rd National Convention in Minneapolis. “I want to be absolutely clear: We cannot, we must not, we will not balance the budget on the backs of our veterans.”
The president said the nation is “still digging out” from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and “it’s taking longer and been more difficult than any of us imagined.”
“We have to create more jobs, and do it faster,” said Obama, who plans next week to outline a set of proposals to spur hiring. “Most of all, we have to break the gridlock in Washington that’s been preventing us from taking the action we need to get this economy moving.”
Even with the nation’s fiscal challenges, he said, the U.S. must make sure it’s “taking care of our veterans as well as you’ve taken care of us.”
When Congress returns next week, lawmakers and the administration will be debating ways to cut the nation’s long- term debt, including defense spending. The administration is reviewing how to slash $420 billion in national security spending, including $330 billion from the Pentagon budget over 10 years.
As part of legislation Obama signed into law earlier this month, the Defense Department would be subject to an additional $500 billion in automatic spending cuts unless a bipartisan supercommittee can agree on a plan to reduce the government’s deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years.
Future military pay and benefits are being reviewed as Pentagon officials seek cuts. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called the automatic cuts a “kind of doomsday mechanism” that could “result in a further round of very dangerous cuts across the board.”
The Defense Department requested $671 billion for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, including $117.8 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama, who will attend ceremonies this year in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington for the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, said the nation must honor, along with the victims, the sacrifices of those who went to war after the terrorists struck.
“Never before has our nation asked so much of our all- volunteer force -- that 1 percent of Americans who wears the uniform,” he said.
As of yesterday, 1,742 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001 and 13,447 have been wounded, according to the Pentagon. There have been 4,477 U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003 and 32,175 wounded.
“Despite 10 years of continuous war, it must be said, America’s military is the best it’s ever been,” he said. “It will continue to be the best.”
Obama said his administration has made the welfare of veterans and their families a top priority across the federal government, not just for the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
The president also highlighted efforts to assist veterans find jobs when they leave the armed forces, including education and training assistance and initiatives to encourage the hiring of veterans by government agencies and private businesses. Among those is a proposed tax credit for companies that hire unemployed veterans with disabilities.
The American Legion has more than 2.4 million members making it the largest veteran’s service organization in the U.S.
--With assistance from Viola Gienger in Wash Dc. Editors: Joe Sobczyk, Bob Drummond
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