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5 days before shutdown, no deal in sight

Sep. 26, 2013 - 02:53PM   |  
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With five days left until the partial shutdown of the U.S. government on Monday, there are lots of ideas but no consensus about how to keep doors open on federal agencies.

There also is no lack of lawmakers introducing legislation to exempt military pay and benefits from the impact of a shutdown, although it seems unlikely any of these measures would pass before the shutdown actually occurs.

The House passed a temporary funding bill last week that would keep federal agencies, including the Defense Department, operating at 2013 funding levels through Dec. 15, and also attached two controversial riders. One denies funding to implement the national health insurance mandate commonly known as Obamacare. The second sets a priority for what bills the government would pay if it runs out of borrowing power and is left with only cash on hand to cover expenses. Creditors, 47 percent of whom are foreign, would be paid first, while military and civilian employees and retirees, veterans, Social Security recipients and others who depend on federal money would be doled out any money left over.

The Senate, and also the White House, have rejected the House proposal but are having problems coming up with a compromise. Senate leaders are determined to prevent any provisions limiting Obamacare and to let the Treasury Department decide the priority for paying bills, but they cannot agree on the length of any temporary funding and are being pushed by some senators to provide reduced funding. They are seeking to provide temporary funding that assumes federal agencies will have their budgets reduced by sequestration in January, and want temporary funding to reflect that lower level. For the Defense Department, sequestration would reduce the 2014 budget by about $57 billion.

It seems unlikely that an agreement can be reached by midnight Monday on all of these issues, so congressional leaders are talking about a short funding extension to give more time for negotiations. One idea would extend the midnight Monday deadline by one week, to midnight Monday, Oct. 7, but even that idea is facing resistance. House and Senate leaders have warned lawmakers they may have to work through the weekend to avoid a government shutdown.

For service members, a shutdown doesn’t mean much in the beginning. They will be paid on Oct. 1, and will report to duty on Tuesday. Pentagon officials said service members will accrue pay and benefits but will not be paid until a defense funding bill is approved. The next military payday is Oct. 15, with disbursement of that pay coming on Oct. 11. Because of the pay schedule, a short government shutdown could occur and be resolved in time that no uniformed service member faces a pay-less payday.

Protecting military pay during a government shutdown or debt crisis has been a popular idea among members of Congress. But despite the introduction of dozens of bills since 2011, when the government started a cycle of one fiscal crisis after another, none of the measures has passed, largely because of the political difficulty of singling out one group for protection but not protecting others. Having the pay of military members at risk in a budget showdown also provided a political motivator for reaching a deal.

That doesn’t stop lawmakers from trying. The latest effort is a bipartisan bill from Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., that would guarantee active and reserve paychecks during a government shutdown, continuing paying federal civilians deployed in combat zones or “doing jobs critical to supporting military operations and also continue uninterrupted federal funding for National Guard disaster relief and recovery missions.”

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., has a similar bill. Heller’s measure would continue paying active and reserve forces, plus civilians and contractors supporting military operations. Heller is also the sponsor of legislation to deny pay to Congress if they fail to pass a budget on time. “The only reason this nation is yet again facing the possibility of a government shutdown is because Congress has failed to do its job in the first place,” Heller said.

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