Plans to ensure troops don’t miss a paycheck if Congress fails to approve funding and the government shuts down on Sunday made little progress this week.
Some lawmakers were still working Friday to pass protections with less than two days to go. Rep. Jen Kiggans, R-Va., told reporters she was in talks with House leadership to take up her bill to keep paying troops during a shutdown and expressed optimism that the bill will get a vote.
But in the Senate, Democrats twice this week blocked GOP attempts to pass a bill to shield troop pay during a shutdown, arguing that every federal worker should be protected by preventing a shutdown in the first place.
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“I share my colleagues’ concern with making sure that our service members do not miss a paycheck because of a potential government shutdown,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., said on the Senate floor Friday. “In fact, I do not want any of our federal workers to miss a paycheck, whether they are cancer researchers whose work saves lives or brave firefighters who risk their lives for us.”
The uncertainty over troop pay comes as government funding is on track to expire at midnight Saturday, leading to a government shutdown at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, with no signs that Congress will reach an agreement to keep the government open before the deadline.
Service members generally cannot be paid during a shutdown even though they have to keep working; they are entitled to backpay when the government reopens. In practice, though, troops have rarely gone without a paycheck during a shutdown.
The main exception was 2019, when most of the government shut down for 35 days and members of the Coast Guard went the entire shutdown without pay, forcing some Coasties to rely on donations and food banks. The rest of the military was unaffected that time because Congress had passed a full-year Pentagon spending bill, but the Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security.
In 2013, when the government shut down for 16 days, the House unanimously passed a bill to keep paying troops two days before the shutdown started, the Senate unanimously cleared it the next day and the president signed it into law hours before the shutdown started.
As a shutdown this weekend drew closer, all sides used military pay as a cudgel in the political fight.
The White House issued a statement Tuesday that warned an “extreme Republican shutdown would force troops to work without getting paid.” Hours before his plan for short-term government funding was blocked by far-right members of his own party, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., argued his bill would “make sure our military gets paid.”
But it remains unclear if Congress will replicate what it did in 2013.
Kiggans introduced a bill last week to pay all active-duty military, including the Coast Guard, as well as some Defense Department civilians and contractors. On Friday, she said she “absolutely” expects the House to act on her bill in the event of a shutdown.
House leaders “certainly are prioritizing it,” said Kiggans, who is a Navy veteran and represents a Navy-heavy district. “These are people that serve our great nation, and we certainly can’t afford to not pay them.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, introduced a bill in his chamber that is identical to Kiggans’ measure. He and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who was widely considered the instigator of the 2013 shutdown, took to the Senate floor on Wednesday and Friday to try to pass the bill, but Murray objected both times.
“The idea that we would leave the men and women who protect this country uncertain about whether they’re going to get paid — even though they’re still going to deploy, they’re going to still be fighting all over the world protecting this nation — so we’re going to leave them out hanging,” Sullivan said on the Senate floor. “All we’re trying to do … is the most common-sense thing you could do if you cared one bit about the troops.”
The Senate has been pressing forward on a bipartisan bill for short-term government funding, but won’t be able to pass it before the government shuts down unless every senator agrees to speed up the Senate’s procedure. The Senate funding bill is also expected to be doomed in the House. Cruz voted against two procedural motions on the funding bill this week, while Sullivan voted against one of the procedural motions.
“You cannot grandstand about wanting to make sure service members get paid during a shutdown and then vote against the very bipartisan bill that prevented a shutdown,” Murray said. “Our service members will see the harm of a government shutdown in so many other ways.”
Permanent change of station moves, or PCS, would be curtailed, and some families could be left without a place to live if they’ve already sold their house or broken their lease, Murray said.
“Service members’ elective surgeries and procedures at DoD medical and dental facilities would have to be postponed. And by the way, an elective surgery could be anything from removing a kidney stone to a mastectomy for breast cancer,” she said. “Essentially, post and base services will be closed or severely limited.”
— Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on X @reporterkheel.
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