Bill would protect troop pay during shutdown
WASHINGTON — Threats of a Defense Department shutdown and freeze on troop paychecks waned this week after a series of moves on Capitol Hill.
A newly introduced House bill would ensure the military keeps getting paid if political divisions scuttle a funding plan for the federal government and force the department and other agencies to close.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate seemed intent on avoiding a shutdown. Both chambers were angling toward votes Wednesday — just hours ahead of a midnight deadline — on a temporary budget fix that could keep the department funded until December.
The DOD has said troops will not get paid and civilians not deemed critical will be furloughed after midnight Wednesday if Democrats and Republicans cannot strike an agreement on an annual federal budget, which was tied up in recent weeks over funding for Planned Parenthood.
“With continued fiscal uncertainty in Washington, these patriots should never have to worry about how they will pay their bills, educate their children, and keep food on the table,” Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., said in a released statement on his proposal on military paychecks.
The legislation floated by Forbes, who chairs an Armed Services subcommittee, allows the Defense Department to continue paying active-duty and reserve servicemembers as well as civilian workers and contractors without a budget. It aims to avoid widespread civilian furloughs, though leaves the final decision on who stays at work to Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Congress passed an emergency measure ahead of the last government shutdown in 2013 that protected troops from a pay freeze, but about 350,000 DOD civilians were furloughed for a week before the department took action to bring them back.
The protections for troops could likely be passed quickly as another emergency measure, said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.
However, measures keeping civilians and contractors paid during a shutdown might not be popular among fellow lawmakers and fiscal hawks, Harrison said.
“That may be a little further than other folks in Congress are willing to go,” he said.
The bill was still in House committee Tuesday and there was little chance of it passing Congress before the current federal budget expires at midnight Wednesday, which might cause some white-knuckled anxiety for servicemembers.
But the protections might not be needed this week after all. Lawmakers appeared ready to pass a temporary budget measure before the shutdown deadline that would keep the government open under current funding levels until Dec. 11, averting any freeze on troop pay for now, Harrison said.
“I don’t think they [servicemembers] have anything to worry about,” he said.
If temporary budget passes, Congress would have more than two months to pass Forbes’ pay protections for troops and civilians before facing another expiration of the budget — and likely political fight that could threaten to shut down the government again.
Harrison said the budget could be held up in December by opposition to Planned Parenthood, the need to lift the federal debt ceiling or funding for federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Congress was stymied in recent weeks over opposition to Planned Parenthood after the health care provider was caught up this summer in a scandal over providing fetus organs for research.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is running for president, led a charge in his chamber to block any budget with funding for the group and far-right conservative Republicans in the House, called the Freedom Caucus, pushed for the same.
But the Senate rejected a continuing budget resolution that blocked money for Planned Parenthood and was set for a vote on a so-called “clean” temporary budget Wednesday that would keep the government funded until this winter.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced his resignation Friday, freeing him up to push a clean budget resolution before the shutdown deadline.