Against the backdrop of the massive U.S. military deployment in the Middle East, President Bush warned Congress yesterday against making deep cuts in military spending to reduce the federal budget deficit.

"We cannot attack the deficit by attacking the very heart of our armed forces -- committed men and women," Bush told a receptive crowd at the Veterans of Foreign Wars annual convention in Baltimore. "I will oppose the defense budget slashers who are out of tune with what America needs to keep freedom secure and safe."

The events in the Persian Gulf over the last 18 days, Bush declared, reaffirmed "the need for a continued strong defense budget to support American troops."

But Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.), one of the liberal Democrats on the House Budget Committee who successfully pushed for cuts in military spending in the House-approved budget, said the turmoil in the gulf should not be used as an argument to protect Pentagon accounts.

Proposed fiscal 1991 military spending reductions would still leave Bush "plenty of room to take care the special needs that have emerged in the Middle East," Kildee said by telephone from Flint, Mich. "The president and Congress will have to look at the big-ticket items that were designed for the Cold War and not this type of action," he said.

Military spending will be a key element in the budget negotiations between administration officials and congressional leaders that are set to resume early next month. Before the Middle East erupted, Democratic bargainers had hoped to avoid deep cuts in such programs as Medicare and Social Security by achieving larger savings from military programs than the administration supports.

Aboard Air Force One on his way from Baltimore to a GOP fund-raising speech in Rhode Island, Bush told reporters he is willing to discuss military savings in the budget talks. But "reckless Pentagon cuts" would not be negotiable, he said. "We just can't tolerate them, and I think most members of Congress . . . will understand that."

"Usually in a time of crisis, the Congress's inclination is to rally around the president -- even if it's wrong," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), another House Budget Committee liberal who fought for big cuts in military spending.

While the gulf crisis "certainly put the brakes under the drive to cut defense," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) said, the Pentagon budget is still vulnerable to cuts in the budget talks.

The determining factor is likely to be the overall size of a deficit-reduction package. With Republicans adamant about preserving current income tax rates and Democrats determined to protect domestic programs, the military could end up bearing the brunt of the cuts. "It's still easier to cut defense than to raise taxes or cut domestic spending," Aspin said.

Earlier this summer, budget bargainers had been hoping to cut the deficit by about $50 billion in fiscal 1991 and by $500 billion over five years. But with rising oil prices putting a further drag on an already weakening economy, some have suggested a more modest goal of $20 billion to $30 billion in first-year savings and spreading the $500 billion savings over seven years.

In his speech to the veterans, Bush criticized the House Armed Services Committee's fiscal 1991 military budget bill, saying it would make "unacceptable cuts." The measure, which would pare $23.9 billion from Bush's Pentagon spending request, would end production of the B-2 "stealth" bomber and slow research on two strategic nuclear missile systems sought by the administration.

Most Americans, Bush said, "endorse giving the military the tools it needs to do its job," including the single-warhead Midgetman missile, the B-2 bomber and the space-based Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

But Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), a pro-defense moderate on the committee, said those weapons are largely irrelevant in a military action such as the gulf operation. "What you need are land and naval capabilities that can fight a land effort," he said.

McCurdy defended the Armed Services Committee's decisions even though he opposed the spending level as too low. "We shifted the emphasis to more relevant and higher priority courses for the future," he said. "President Bush and {Defense} Secretary {Richard B.} Cheney seem to be hanging on to the Cold War priorities."

In January, Bush asked for $306.9 billion in new spending authority for the Pentagon in the year beginning Oct. 1. The House Budget Committee trimmed that figure to $283.0 billion. The Senate Budget Committee adopted a budget that called for $285.6 billion in new military spending authority, but the full Senate, led by Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), approved a $289-billion Pentagon spending plan.

Lawmakers expect the Pentagon to seek additional funds to cover the cost of its operations in the gulf, estimated to be $1.2 billion through the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30. Aspin called that projection "crude" and "preliminary" and said it was sure to rise.

And the Office of Management and Budget yesterday said events in the gulf are having other effects on the budget deficit. OMB set its latest estimate of the fiscal 1991 deficit at $169.7 billion, little changed from its July projection of $168.8 billion.