Pentagon Can Only Hope to Keep Paying Troops, Carter Says

Ashton Carter at the Pentagon. DoD photo by R. D. Ward
Ashton Carter at the Pentagon. DoD photo by R. D. Ward

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Friday that making sure the troops continue to get pay and benefits during the budget impasse was his top priority, but he offered little but hope for a compromise solution from the Congress and the White House.

Carter said that making the troops constantly worry over the years about whether they'll get paid "is a source of uncertainty for them and their families that I think is unworthy of them and what they're doing for the country."

Pay and benefits were "the uppermost consideration in my mind since I first testified about this question and the whole budget gridlock back in March," Carter said at a Pentagon news conference.

Yet the secretary, who was named to the position in part for his budget and acquisitions expertise, added, "I'm not the expert on this."

In the political back and forth between Congress and the White House over the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the Pentagon was "by and large an observer," Carter said.

"I hope that it is possible for everybody to come together here at long last in Washington," he said.

In his message to Congress Thursday vetoing the NDAA passed by the House and Senate, President Obama said, "this bill fails to authorize funding for our national defense in a fiscally responsible manner."

"It underfunds our military in the base budget," he added, "and instead relies on an irresponsible budget gimmick that has been criticized by members of both parties."

"Specifically, the bill's use of $38 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funding -- which was meant to fund wars and is not subject to budget caps -- does not provide the stable, multi-year budget upon which sound defense planning depends,"  Obama said.

The proposed $612 billion for defense in the NDAA included $38 billion in the OCO account. The veto cast doubt on whether Congress can complete a planned overhaul of the military retirement system and whether a range of military specialty pays and bonuses will be renewed in January.

The main cause of the impasse was the desire of both the White House and Congress to lift the sequester spending caps of the Budget Control Act. Obama wants the caps lifted for both defense and domestic spending; Republicans want the caps lifted just for defense.

In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal on Friday, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, respectively the chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, called Obama's veto an act of "partisan gamesmanship."

"President Obama's veto was about broader spending issues that have absolutely nothing to do with defense," McCain and Thornberry said.

"By vowing recently that he 'will not fix defense without fixing non-defense spending,' the president is holding the military hostage to increase funding for Washington bureaucracies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service," they said.

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com

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