Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday blamed Republicans for blocking a budget deal and risking automatic Pentagon cuts. But he promised a veterans group that America's fighting men and women won't suffer and will be guaranteed the best medical care for life.
"We're going to keep our commitment to American veterans no matter what happens," Biden said, winning applause from an audience of 3,000 people attending the Disabled American Veterans convention at Bally's.
The Veterans Administration is exempt from any spending cuts as part of a temporary budget deal Republicans and Democrats agreed to last summer.
Under the Budget Control Act that President Barack Obama signed, $1.2 trillion in automatic budget cuts would go into effect, including nearly $500 billion for defense, unless a deal is reached before a Jan. 2 deadline.
Biden, in the most politically sharp portion of his 45-minute speech, urged Congress to work harder to find a solution in an election year when neither party seems to want to compromise.
"So the Congress should act now to reassure the markets and reassure the nation," Biden said, "because we shouldn't be playing politics with the United States military. It's that simple."
The Obama administration wants to balance the budget in part by ending Bush-era tax cuts for Americans making $250,000 in income or more. Republicans want to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for everybody, arguing a tax hike on small business owners could stifle economic growth.
Biden said $800 billion in the tax cuts goes to people making a minimum of $1 million.
"We're not going to have to cut defense," Biden assured the veterans.
Biden's address to the DAV comes three weeks after Obama and his GOP presidential rival, Mitt Romney, spoke to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno.
Nevada, a battleground state, has up to 400,000 veterans, or nearly 15 percent of the population, who will have a big impact on the 2012 election.
On Monday, Nevada lawmakers will dedicate a new VA medical center in North Las Vegas that cost about $1 billion, including several related facilities to serve veterans in Southern Nevada. It's the first new VA hospital built in 17 years, and three more are under construction elsewhere in the United States.
U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., will be on hand for the dedication along with Senate rivals U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., who are both wooing veterans.
On Saturday, most of Biden's address was spent praising sacrifices members of the military have made, from past wars to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed the 9/11 terrorists attacks on the United States.
"The contributions each and every one of you made will outlive us all," Biden said.
The vice president choked up when he told the story of visiting a veteran in a hospital over the Christmas holidays. The man had lost the lower half of both legs, and Biden said the soldier apologized for not standing to salute when the vice president approached his hospital bed.
Many of the injured veterans he has visited ask him the same thing, Biden said.
"Sir, can you get me back to my unit, sir? I know I can be helpful, sir," Biden recounted.
"You're all amazing," Biden said, recovering his composure.
Biden promised that the administration is working to get rid of a growing backlog of medical cases, now about 880,000. The VA is handling more than 1 million new claims each year as troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan with severe injuries and disabilities.
In addition, the rules were changed to presume veterans' injuries and maladies were caused by wars in which they served, including Agent Orange during Vietnam, Gulf War Syndrome in Iraq and problems from brain injuries and post-traumatic stress increasingly suffered by modern troops. Biden said that added 800,000 new cases for the VA to handle.
The Obama administration has vowed to cut the backlog completely by 2015. It also increased the annual VA budget by 30 percent to $127 billion to handle the increasing needs of veterans.
"We will not rest until there is no backlog and that's a promise," Biden said.
Biden also promised more job help for veterans, whose unemployment rate is two points higher than the national average, now 8.3 percent. Nevada's jobless rate is 11.6 percent, so veterans here have even more trouble finding work. Biden said military skills will now qualify veterans for automatic licenses and certificates so they don't have to go through duplicative training to work.
Also, the Obama administration has challenged the private sector to hire veterans, resulting in 90,000 jobs for veterans so far with the goal of 175,000, he said. Federal funding for the COPS program for local governments to hire police also will give veterans preference, Biden said.
"No veteran who fought for our country should have to fight for a job" at home, Biden said.
At Saturday's convention, Biden won a standing ovation when he was introduced and he won enthusiastic applause when praising veterans for their courage and service. But the audience appeared more tepid in its response when he made political points or promises to fix VA problems or end homelessness among veterans within the next few years.
"They say what they have to say to get re-elected," said Clarence Meier of Kansas, who served in the Army from 1953 through 1974 and received a Purple Heart in the Vietnam War. "I can't see how Obama will get anything more done than he did in his first term."
Meier, a Republican, said he remains undecided in the presidential race but is leaning toward Romney because he believes he would do a better job with the economy.
Jack Edwards, a 25-year Navy veteran from Texas, also served in Vietnam and was just as skeptical about political promises. But the Democrat said he supports Obama for re-election.
"All candidates seem to promise a lot and not deliver much," Edwards said. "I think Obama could get more done if Congress could all just get together. Everybody can make a promise, but making it happen is another thing, even if you're the president."
Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.