Cuts to military veterans benefits in December's budget deal have outraged veterans groups, but as Congress and President Obama return to Washington this week, the cuts don't appear to be going anywhere soon.
The budget agreement reached before Christmas puts into place a 1% across-the-board reduction to the cost of living adjustment for military pensions, a move that on principle alone has upset many veterans after 13 years of war. Veterans groups plan to push back against the provisions in the recent budget deal — but so far they've been met with radio silence from the White House.
"It is a big surprise for us," said Michael Hayden, a retired Air Force colonel and director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America. Hayden's group has had "informational" conversations with the White House about the impact of cutting veterans benefits, he said, but so far has no insight into whether President Obama will come to their aide.
Top military brass below the president have also been a disappointment, Hayden said.
"We're really kind of surprised the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff] and the Joint Chiefs haven't come out and said this is wrong," he said.
But the groups acknowledge the focus will be on Congress even as they hope for the White House aid.
"[Congress] screwed this up, they're going to have to fix it," said Tom Tarantino, government affairs director at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
"I would like to see the president be more vocal," Tarantino added, praising the president on his advocacy for veterans and their families. "He's probably been the most active president we've had in 50 years on this stuff. But I think this took everyone by surprise. I would like to see the president continue supporting our community."
The veterans benefits cuts are proving to be the most controversial part of the bipartisan budget deal. The two prominent partisans who led the crafting of the deal, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), have already agreed to remove the cuts to disabled veterans' benefits, calling them a "technical error."
But both Ryan and Murray have taken stands that make it hard to undo the rest of the cuts. Ryan has defended the cuts, saying they're necessary to prevent the military from suffering sequestration cuts.
Murray, meanwhile, has said she's open to replacing the cuts with other spending cuts equal to the $6 billion in savings created by retirees' COLA increase, but is not in favor of dropping the cuts all together.
Hill sources on both sides said the White House has not pressured budget writers to repeal the COLA cuts or to stand by them. But some suggest the president's signature on the budget deal, which in theory will prevent another round of fiscal crises in 2014, signals that he's on the side of the cutters.
"President Obama signed the Bipartisan Budget Act into law," a source familiar with the process said. "[Defense] Secretary Hagel voiced support for the law generally and the need for compensation reform specifically."
The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the veterans' complaints.
The COLA cuts don't go into effect until late 2015, a lead time that veterans' groups say gives them plenty of time to help allied members of Congress who have condemned the cuts find a way out of them. And though they want the president to lend his voice to their efforts, Obama is so far not the focus when it comes to lobbying Washington to find its $6 billion in savings somewhere else.
A pressure campaign over the cuts launched by the MOAA and its allies before the bill passed last month was restarted Friday with a call for veterans to push their representatives of Congress to repeal the COLA cuts. Before the bill passed, the MOAA campaign and a letter sent by veterans advocate umbrella The Military Coalition included Obama among the recipients of the pressure messaging. In the latest iteration, the president has been left out.
"Our focus is to work on the Hill," said John Davis, legislative affairs director at the Fleet Reserve Association and co-chair of The Military Coalition.
"It doesn't surprise me that Obama's not going to jump out and take a position one way or the other on this until he sees something moving," he added. "It's standard operating procedure for presidents. We're hoping to force his hand."
Tarantino expects the White House to go along with changes to the benefits cuts if Congress can find them.
"I am not anticipating a lot resistance from the White House. If there is resistance we will push back hard," he said. "But I'm not anticipating a lot of resistance."
Update (1:35 p.m.): An administration official provided the following statement to BuzzFeed, which leaves unaddressed the cost of living adjustment:
"The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 represents a compromise between Democrats and Republicans in Congress. As the president made clear, the law doesn't include everything that he would have liked. Importantly, the law unwinds some of the damaging sequester cuts that have harmed our military, our students, and our seniors, and has acted as a headwind our businesses have had to fight. Without this deal, the Pentagon faced the prospect of additional cuts that would have further degraded our military readiness and support for our troops. The administration supports the effort underway to fix the unintended reduction in COLAs for working-age military retirees with service-related disabilities."