Threat to Troop Paychecks Rises as Congress Fumbles Pentagon Bill and Lurches Toward a Government Shutdown

Storm clouds darken the skies above the Capitol in Washington
Storm clouds darken the skies above the Capitol in Washington, Monday, June 12, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

With just a week to go before the government shuts down and threatens troop paychecks, Congress has no clear path to passing a defense budget.

Two times this week, House Republicans tried and failed to advance their fiscal 2024 Pentagon spending bill because of opposition from the party’s far-right flank -- an outcome that's stunning once, let alone twice, for a bill that normally sails through Congress with bipartisan support.

House Republican leadership also scrapped plans to vote this weekend on a stopgap measure to keep funding the government for another month when current funding expires on Oct. 1.

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Both the House's Pentagon spending bill and its stopgap spending bill were filled with partisan riders that would be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But House Republicans saw passing them as important to staking out a position in negotiations with the Senate.

Failing to agree even on messaging bills underscores a stark reality: Congress is careening toward a government shutdown with no solution.

"Today, I think this place is starting to feel more like the Twilight Zone," Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., ranking member of the House Rules Committee, said at a committee meeting Friday. "We all know we're hurtling toward a shutdown, and yet my friends on the other side of the aisle are terrified, scared stiff by a small handful of extremists in their own conference.”

“It's like we're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of Republican chaos," McGovern said.

During a government shutdown, missions deemed essential to national security keep running, but the troops working on them can't get paid unless Congress passes emergency legislation to allow military paychecks to continue. That's what happened in 2013, when lawmakers passed a bill just before a 16-day shutdown started to ensure troops wouldn't miss a paycheck.

But there's no guarantee a fractured Congress will repeat that, as demonstrated during the 2019 shutdown, when members of the Coast Guard, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, went a month without pay during a shutdown. The rest of the military was unaffected in 2019 because Congress had passed a full-year Pentagon spending bill.

Following the disarray this week, House Republican leadership is planning to try to pass several individual appropriations bills next week, including another attempt to move forward on the Pentagon spending bill. The House Rules Committee was meeting Friday afternoon to start teeing up the procedural measure to allow floor debate for bills to fund the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, State and Agriculture.

The revised game plan to take up more individual spending bills appeared to please at least one GOP holdout.

"Restoring the appropriations function would be an historic milestone and the first step on the long path to fiscal sanity," Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., who voted against advancing the defense spending bill twice this week, posted Thursday night on X, formerly known as Twitter. "This opportunity has come to pass only because a handful of us had the stones to take down the defense approps rule today."

Too little time remains, though, before the end of the fiscal year to pass all 12 individual government spending bills, making a stopgap spending measure, known as a continuing resolution, or CR, necessary.

Meanwhile, before the Senate left for the weekend on Thursday evening, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., took procedural steps to ready the chamber to act on its own CR if the House remains paralyzed.

The scrambling for a Plan B to keep the government open comes after a messy two weeks in the House focused largely on the Pentagon spending bill.

The House originally planned to consider the defense appropriations bill last week, but pulled it from its schedule when it became clear enough far-right Republican lawmakers would vote against a procedural motion to block it. Republican leaders decided to move forward with the vote Tuesday, but it failed after five Republicans and all Democrats voted against it.

After a day of negotiations Wednesday in which two of the GOP "no" votes said they would now vote for it, Republican leaders tried again Thursday -- only to see the procedural motion fail again when two Republicans who voted "yes" earlier in the week switched their votes.

Most of the GOP objections to the defense appropriations bill are unrelated to the contents of the bill, instead focusing on complaints about the overall funding process. The main exception is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who said she voted against the procedural motion on the bill Thursday because the legislation includes $300 million in security assistance for Ukraine, despite having voted for the procedural motion for the same bill two days prior.

In hopes of moving the stalled defense bill forward, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters Friday he would take the Ukraine funding out and hold a separate vote on it.

Even if House Republicans can come to an agreement with each other, avoiding a government shutdown will require negotiations with Senate Democrats, and far-right lawmakers are threatening to oust McCarthy if he works with Democrats.

Some centrist Republicans are discussing ways to circumvent McCarthy, but it's unclear whether they will be successful, and the method they are discussing, known as a discharge petition, takes longer to accomplish than there are days left before a shutdown.

"They don't know how to take ‘yes’ for an answer," Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., said Friday about the far-right lawmakers on "The Hugh Hewitt Show. "

"And so, ultimately, we're left in a position where responsible people need to be the adults in the room," Lawler added. "There are at least five of us, which is all that is needed, to sign a discharge petition, which would allow a bill to come to the floor for a vote."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on X @reporterkheel.

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