Congress Reopens Government, Troops' Pay Protected

U.S. Capitol

Congress reached a last-minute deal to end the government shutdown and extend the country’s borrowing authority just hours before a possible default.

The Democratic-held Senate on Wednesday evening voted 81-18 to approve the legislation. The Republican-held House soon followed, with 87 Republicans breaking ranks with more conservative members to join the Democrats in passing the bill 285-144. President Barack Obama vowed to sign the legislation immediately.

“We’ll begin reopening our government immediately,” Obama said.

The accord will fund the government through Jan. 15 and raise the federal debt limit through Feb. 6. It will also provide back pay to the hundreds of thousands of civilian workers who were forced to take unpaid leaves of absence, known as furloughs.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget, issued a statement Wednesday night saying federal employees “should expect to return to work in the morning.”

“Employees should be checking the news and OPM's website for further updates,” she said.

After 16 days of a partial shutdown, the Defense Department, Veterans Affairs Department and other agencies were to begin reopening Thursday. Furloughed civilians and contractors will return to work. Schools and commissaries will resume normal operations. Guard and Reserve units will also resume training and payrolls.

Veterans’ organization, which have been demanding Congress and President Obama end the political fighting to ensure veterans, their dependents or their survivors continue to receive their compensation checks on time on Nov. 1 are relieved a deal was reached.

At the same time they insist there cannot be a repeat of the impasse that threatens hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families.

“We must take decisive action to prevent this from recurring,” the Disabled American Veterans said in a late-night statement. “Now is the time to get Congress to pass, and the President to sign, new legislation to extend advance appropriations to all VA programs, services and benefits.”

More than 80 percent of the Department of Veterans Affairs annual budget already is appropriated a year in advance, covering medical care and facilities. But the so-called discretionary budgets covering disability and compensation payments and education payments for troops attending school on the GI Bill, are not.

The DAV, in its statement, said there is already legislation to provide advance appropriation for these budget in both the House and Senate, “that could easily be amended, passed, and enacted into law if there is the political will to do so.”

The shutdown began Oct. 1 after Congress failed to pass a budget or short-term funding resolution for fiscal 2014.

The House initially demanded that any legislation to temporarily fund the government include language to scale back Obama's signature health-care law, the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. The Senate and the White House opposed such a provision, resulting in the impasse.

Lawmakers were under significant pressure to reach an agreement to raise the federal debt limit before Oct. 17, when the Treasury Department was to have exhausted its ability to borrow.“We fought the good fight,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a radio interview earlier in the day. “We just didn’t win.”

The pact established budget negotiations between both chambers of Congress to set up a spending plan to fund the remainder of fiscal 2014. In a minor victory for Republicans, it also tightened income verifications for citizens seeking to obtain health care through the new exchanges.

Even so, the short-term arrangement means the Pentagon’s workforce could find itself in a similar situation just a few months from now – with the possibility of more delays to troops’ pays and bonuses and additional furloughs of civilian workers.

The combined effects of a default and government shutdown would supersede any legislation designed to shield military personnel from financial harm, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said.

Everything from troops’ pay and benefits, including incentive pays and re-enlistment bonuses, to veterans’ disability benefits and survivors’ benefits would be eliminated if the U.S. fails to raise the debt ceiling and defaults on debt obligations, he said.

"The United States should not be put in a position of making such perilous choices for our economy and our citizens," Lew said last week in testimony to the Senate Finance Committee.

The Senate deal, negotiated by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., keeps intact automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

The Defense Department faces $500 billion in automatic cuts over the next decade. That’s in addition to almost $500 billion in defense reductions already included in 2011 deficit-reduction legislation.

The first installment of the automatic cuts totaled $37 billion and began March 1 after lawmakers were unable to reach an alternative agreement on taxes and spending. The next round totals $52 billion and is set to take effect Jan. 1.

Associate Editor Bryant Jordan contributed to this report.

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