WASHINGTON - The threat to U.S. troops' paychecks during a government shutdown has rattled military families and others sympathetic to young soldiers, sailors, air crews and Marines fighting distant wars. More than concerns over closed courthouses or national parks, the military issue escalated the political feud Thursday in Washington, D.C.
Both the Republicans and Democrats tried to steer the issue to their benefit.
The House approved a resolution by Republicans to fund the military through the end of the fiscal year. But the White House threatened to block it, calling the measure – which includes billions more in budget cuts and a ban on publicly funded abortions in the District of Columbia – a “distraction from the real work that would bring us closer to a reasonable compromise.” The Democrats offered a simple one-week extension of current spending levels.
In Iraq on Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told troops that if the government closes, their next paycheck would be for half the normal amount and they wouldn’t receive a check at all the following pay period if the shutdown continued. Gates told them they could expect to get paid eventually for all their work.
“I remember when I was your age, I did a lot of living from paycheck to paycheck,” Gates said. “And so, I hope this thing doesn’t happen because I know it will be an inconvenience for a lot of troops.”
Republicans cited the threat to military families to pressure Democrats in negotiations.
“If the president vetoes this bill and shuts the government down, our men and women in uniform serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the world will not be paid,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said. “Our troops must be paid, our country is broke and we are committed to fixing that. I urge the president to revisit his decision and work with us.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said the GOP’s effort was a “very cynical ploy to use our troops to try to impose the Republican agenda through the budget process.”
As the political fight roared on, the looming shutdown was personal for military families. A little less than half of all active duty service members are 25 or younger, and about 40 percent have children. In the nearly 10 years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many service members have done multiple war deployments.
Krystel Spell, 29, of Spring Lake, N.C., is a military spouse who runs the website armywife101.com . She has been flooded with questions.
“We hear so much, ‘We support our troops, we support our troops’ but the very backbone, the people that are protecting us aren’t going to get paid,” she said. “Everybody said this isn’t a political thing. This is people’s livelihoods.”
Marine Maj. Andrew Hester man, 42, of Scotts Valley, Calif., who just returned from Afghanistan a week ago, said he’s heard troops voicing concern about a shutdown for about two months now.
“You’ve left your wife and kid at home to fend for themselves sort of,” Hesterman said.
“It makes you think that this employer can’t take care of me while I’m away, so why do I want to work for them? It’s tough on all service members, especially the younger, less financially stable guys.”
At Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, Megan Bilotta, 32, a military spouse with 7-week-old twins, said she and her husband have been cutting back on expenses, such as eating out, in preparation for a possible government shutdown.
“We rely on the government for our paycheck. We’re a one-income family now that we have children, and if we don’t get paid, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Bilotta said.