Odds of Shutdown and Missed Paychecks for Troops Grow Amid Chaos in the House

A general view of the U.S Capitol building
A general view of the U.S Capitol building on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

The threat of a government shutdown -- and the missed paychecks it would mean for service members -- is growing after a chaotic week in the House that saw lawmakers unable to even take up a bill that would fund the Pentagon.

The House had been scheduled to vote this week on the fiscal 2024 defense appropriations bill. But members of the far-right Freedom Caucus and other staunch conservatives threatened to oppose a procedural motion on the bill because of demands unrelated to its content, prompting House Republican leadership to scuttle the planned vote.

Republicans are expected to try again next week to bring the defense spending bill to the floor. But it's unclear whether the outcome will be any different than this week, and the episode underscored the difficulty lawmakers face in finding a path to keep the government open at the end of the fiscal year in 16 days.

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"I'm worried about it," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said Thursday about the prospect of a government shutdown. "People don't realize, that haven't been here since the 2013 shutdown, that the troops don't get paid. And that may be convenient for them. But if you're sitting in Niger in a trailer or in Poland or Romania or whatever, and you're not getting paid, it's not OK."

In 2013, when the government shut down for 16 days, lawmakers passed a bill just before the shutdown started to ensure troops wouldn't miss a paycheck.

Absent such a bill, service members in general can't be paid during a shutdown despite being considered essential employees who have to continue working.

For example, during the last shutdown in 2019, members of the Coast Guard, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, went a month without pay and in some cases had to start relying on food banks. The rest of the military was unaffected in 2019 because Congress had passed a full-year Pentagon spending bill.

Lawmakers have until Sept. 30 to reach an agreement to fund the government for fiscal 2024. With so little time left, Congress has been expected to pass a short-term funding bill known as a continuing resolution, or CR, that essentially puts the government on autopilot until a more comprehensive funding agreement is reached.

But far-right lawmakers are balking at a "clean" CR, demanding that the bill incorporate policy priorities including eliminating "woke" Pentagon policies and fortifying the southern border. Those demands are nonstarters for Senate Democrats and the White House, making a shutdown more likely if neither side backs down.

"We're going to have a shutdown. It's just a matter of how long," Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., a Freedom Caucus member, told reporters Thursday.

Six Republicans representing different factions of the conference, including the Freedom Caucus, are in negotiations on a CR that could garner a consensus among the House GOP and that includes border security proposals, one Republican told reporters on condition of anonymity.

But even if the negotiations are successful, such a CR would likely be dead-on-arrival in the Senate.

The Senate, by contrast, has worked in a bipartisan manner to move forward on government funding. On Thursday afternoon, senators voted 91-7 on a procedural motion to advance a three-bill package that includes funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Still, even the Senate process hit a snag later Thursday when Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., objected to a package of proposed amendments, preventing the Senate from moving closer to final passage of the funding measure.

"Members cannot have it both ways," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said on the Senate floor after Johnson's objection. "They cannot block floor consideration of appropriations bills that were unanimously reported by the committee and yet maintain that they don't want an omnibus bill."

"It's one or the other," she said. "Or a government shutdown -- even worse."

Guidance released by the Pentagon this week on its plans for operations during a shutdown says that active-duty service members, including reserve component members on active-duty orders, would "continue to report for duty and carry out assigned duties."

"The department will continue to defend the nation and conduct ongoing military operations," the guidance says. "It will continue activities funded with any available budgetary resources that have not lapsed, as well as excepted activities such as those necessary for the safety of human life and the protection of property."

More than 400,000 civilian Pentagon employees who are "not necessary to carry out or support" essential activities would be furloughed, according to the guidance.

VA medical care and benefits processing are typically unaffected by shutdowns because the department receives some appropriations in advance, though some VA administrative work could be stalled.

Looming over the government funding fight is a threat from far-right House members to oust House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., from his speakership if he doesn't accede to their demands. In the wake of the conservatives derailing the defense spending bill, McCarthy reportedly dared his detractors to make their move during a closed-door meeting Thursday.

Amid the chaos, McCarthy vowed to press ahead on government funding bills next week.

"When we come back [after the weekend], we're not going to leave," he said at a news conference. "We're going to get this done. Nobody wins in a government shutdown."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on X @reporterkheel.

Related: 'Woke' Pentagon Spending at Center of Upcoming Government Shutdown Fight

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