WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has told the Defense Department to expedite its review of nearly 10,000 California National Guard soldiers who have been ordered to repay enlistment bonuses improperly given a decade ago, but he is not backing growing calls for Congress to waive the debts, the White House said Tuesday.
The comments by White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggest the administration is running into legal and policy roadblocks as it struggles to handle a public relations headache for the Pentagon, the National Guard and members of Congress who were caught off guard by the scope of the problem.
Appeals filed by some solders to waive repayment of the bonuses, which frequently exceeded $15,000 per soldier, have "dragged on for too long," Earnest told reporters in Beverly Hills, Calif., while Obama attended a fundraiser for Senate Democrats.
"We're not going to nickel-and-dime them when they get back, and we're not going to hold service members responsible unfairly for unethical conduct or fraud perpetrated by someone else," Earnest said.
But he said the president was not yet backing bipartisan calls in Congress to fully forgive the overpayments of an estimated $70 million total that recruiters awarded to meet their enlistment quotas.
"I don't think he's prepared to go that far at this point," Earnest said, adding that "it might not be necessary to ensure fairness."
"His first priority is making sure that our men and women in uniform who signed up to fight for our safety overseas are treated fairly when they come home," he said. "When we make a promise to our men and women in the military, we need to keep it."
The White House response came after a Los Angeles Times report on Saturday said the Pentagon was demanding repayment of enlistment bonuses given to about 9,700 soldiers mostly from 2006 to 2008 as the military was scrambling to fill its ranks. Many troops served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Tuesday that the repayment program "has got its complexities to it," but that the Pentagon was "going to look into it and resolve it."
"Anybody who volunteers to serve in the armed forces of the United States deserves our gratitude and respect, period," Carter told reporters in Paris on the sidelines of a meeting of counter-Islamic State coalition countries.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, the second-ranking official at the Defense Department, convened a senior-level meeting at the Pentagon early Tuesday morning to examine the repayments, officials said.
The Defense Department is looking at ways appeals "can be expedited" for soldiers "on an individual basis," but it cannot issue blanket forgiveness of the debts, said Laura Ochoa, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
That may require action by Congress, which engaged in a bout of fierce finger-pointing Tuesday.
Members of the California delegation blamed California Guard officials in Sacramento for not alerting them to the scale of the problem in 2014 when the GOP-led House considered -- but did not pass -- a provision that would have allowed the Defense secretary to waive the repayments.
Guard officials did not make clear the vast scale of the repayments sought from soldiers, and did not make waiving the debts a congressional priority, several lawmakers said.
"If they would have come and said, 'You're going to have thousands of combat veterans having their wages garnished and tax liens being put on them, we would have been all over this," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. "That was never communicated to us."
Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., said neither the Pentagon nor State Guard officials told him about the large number of soldiers ordered to repay bonuses, though his office had received complaints from individual soldiers.
"I have no record of receiving any formal notice of this widespread issue from any department -- federal or state. The only record I have is of individual cases of service members who approached my office to get help, and we are working with these individuals who have served our country to make sure they are treated fairly," he said.
California Guard officials say they informed California lawmakers about the scale of the debts in 2014, telling them in a list of legislative priorities sent to each House office and the House Armed Services Committee that "thousands of soldiers have inadvertently incurred debt, through no fault of their own because of faulty Army recruiting or accounting practices."
"Unfortunately, no official process exists to adjudicate debt relief for Army National Guard soldiers, which has caused years of hardship for them and their families," the document said.
The California Guard also sent members of Congress a draft provision to be included in the 2015 defense authorization bill to allow debt waivers for the affected soldiers.
Reps. Paul Cook and Jeff Denham, both Republicans, initially pushed the provision but later abandoned the effort, and it didn't appear in the final bill.
Why the provision was not put into the bill was a subject of dispute Tuesday. Cook said he abandoned the effort after being told the Pentagon already had the power to waive the debts.
"I co-introduced an amendment that would specifically provide the authority for the Secretary of the Army to waive debt payments,' Cook said in a statement. "During this process, it was made clear that the Secretary already has this authority."
But Guard officials said they were told that the provision was discarded because waiving the debt would have cost the Pentagon money, requiring the estimated costs to be offset with cuts elsewhere in the defense budget.
Denham declined to comment on why the provision was dropped in 2014.
"Our office has assisted every veteran who has called in requesting help," said Jessica McFaul, Denham's spokeswoman. "It is a protracted process, and we have one success story so far of the debt being forgiven, and another story in progress that is going well. The congressman is committed to follow through for every constituent who needs his help."
Denham is locked in a close re-election race, and his Democratic opponent, Michael Eggman, blasted the incumbent Tuesday, saying the failure of Congress to respond to the 2014 warnings was "outrageous."
"Congress needs to halt bonus collection efforts immediately and vote on legislation that will fix this," Eggman said.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., on Tuesday also called for the Pentagon to immediately suspend efforts to recover enlistment bonuses.
"When those Californians answered the call to duty they earned more from us than bureaucratic bungling and false promises," Ryan said, urging the Pentagon to suspend collection efforts until "Congress has time ... to protect service members from lifelong liability for DoD's mistakes."
Ryan noted that a bill passed earlier this year by the House would establish a 10-year statute of limitations on the military's ability to recover overpayments.
That provision offers little immediate help to California Guard members since it would not take effect until 2027.
The House Oversight Committee announced that it had started an investigation into the repayment program. It asked the California Guard to turn over all documents and audits of the payments.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the committee chairman, and three other Republicans said in a letter that officials who mismanaged the bonus programs must be "held accountable." The lawmakers said Guard officials must turn over relevant documents by Nov. 7.
Christi Parsons and Sarah D. Wire of the Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.