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Military pay hangs in the balance in government shutdown negotiations

As Congress continues to wrangle over its budget bill and attempts to avert a government shutdown, full and timely military pay hangs in the balance — and Republicans are faulting Democrats for allowing that risk.

Much like the debate over Planned Parenthood funding, military pay has given Washington politicians a simple issue that resonates with voters that they can use to cast their opponents as irresponsible and unwilling to negotiate. While it has mostly been Republicans who have seized the issue of military pay in the budget debate, some Democrats have in turn accused the GOP of turning their backs on the troops.

If Congress today fails to pass a budget for the next six months, the federal government will in part shut down at midnight tonight.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told troops in Iraq this week that their paychecks would be delayed if the government shuts down.

“First of all, let me say you will be paid,” he said. “As a historian it always occurred to me the smart thing for government was always to pay the guys with guns first. But in all seriousness, based on some stuff I read this morning, if the government shuts down starts on the 8th and goes for a week, you’d get a half a check. If it goes from the 15th to the 30th, you wouldn’t get a pay check on the 30th but you would be back paid for all of it.”

He added, “Frankly, I remember when I was your age, I did a lot of living from pay check to pay check, and so I hope this thing doesn’t happen because I know it will be an inconvenience for a lot of troops.”

With negotiations apparently stalemated, the GOP-led House on Thursday passed a third short-term spending measure to keep the government operating for another week — while cutting an additional $12 billion from this fiscal year’s budget. Along with a controversial measure regarding abortion funding in the District of Columbia, the measure included funding for the Pentagon for the rest of the fiscal year — thus giving Republicans the opportunity to dub the bill a “troop funding bill.”

“I think the Senate should follow the House lead and pass the troop funding bill and do it today,” House Speaker John Boehner said to reporters late Friday morning. “I also believe the president should sign the troop funding bill into law. This is the responsible thing to do support our troops and to keep our federal government open.”

President Obama has threatened to veto the bill, if it ever made it past the Senate, because of the abortion provision. The administration said Mr. Obama would be willing to sign a “clean” short-term budget extension bill “if negotiations are making significant progress.”

The veto threat has prompted Republican politicians to criticize Democrats for threatening the troops. Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin wrote in a Facebook note today, “Why would [Mr. Obama] play politics at the expense of our troops who are putting everything on the line to protect us? Memo to the President: I doubt the insurgents will stop and wait for a government shutdown to end before resuming actions. You need to fund our troops, sir.”

Democrats have decried the GOP criticisms as a cynical ploy, saying that the Democratic party has shown more actual support for the troops.

“For them to hide behind our troops while they build a future unworthy of the sacrifice of our troops… is a contradiction in terms,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday. She said Democrats opposed the short-term spending bill “because it’s not the right path to do for our economy and for our troops and for the strength of our country… both militarily and economically.”

“We are the ones who have supported our troops all along,” Pelosi continued. “We’ve done more for our men and women in uniform and when they come home as veterans than has been done in the history of our country. All of that with a great deal of Republican opposition.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pursued standalone measures to protect troop pay — legislation not tied to the controversial budget debate.

Democratic Rep. Bill Owens of New York contends that while the one-week spending measure the House passed Thursday funds the Pentagon, it does not ensure timely pay for soldiers or their on-base families. He put forward a measure yesterday that would have ensured soldiers were paid, but it failed along party lines, with just one Republican joining Democrats to support the measure.

In the Senate, Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas says she has gathered at least 60 members in support of her bill, the Ensuring Pay for Our Military Act. That same legislation was introduced in the House by Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, but Republican leadership has not put it up for a vote.

As Tea Party freshman Rep. Allen West pointed out yesterday, if Republicans are so concerned about funding the troops, they should support a standalone measure to ensure they’re paid. West said he was “disgusted at the perception that Leaders in my own Party…are now using the men and women in uniform” to pass a short-term budget bill.