Sprinklers water the lawn outside the Capitol late on Sept. 28. (Molly Riley/AP)
The House of Representatives doubled down early Sunday on a threat to shut down the federal government unless the White House agrees to a one-year delay in the health care law known as Obamacare.
Accompanying their newest short-term funding bill is free-standing measure promising military members, some federal civilians and some federal contractors will be paid even if funds for other government operations expire. Passage of the military pay protection bill shows “we are getting closer and closer to a shutdown,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.Y.
The military pay bill passed 423-0 after an hours-long debate on the government shutdown that started Saturday evening. The House took two votes on the government funding bill, delaying Obamacare for one year and rejecting a medical device tax that was part of the bill.
If it became law, the Pay our Military Act, the bill, HR 3210, would remove some of the political backlash that would face lawmakers if they fail to pass an appropriations bill to keep the federal government running when the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. Keeping the military paid has been a big motivator in the tense spending negotiations.
The military pay measure would remove the threat that service members would not be paid Oct. 15 if a government shutdown extends beyond about Oct. 7, which is the date Pentagon officials said they would have to start payroll processing.
“This is critical to get this done,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who tried to get the House to pass similar legislation two years ago during a previous fiscal crisis but was blocked by House Republican leaders even though he had collected 200 cosponsors.
The military pay measure appropriates to the U.S. Treasury whatever sum of money is needed to cover pay and allowances for active and reserve personnel. It also covers pay and allowances for federal civilians determined by the Defense secretary as “providing support” to active and reserve members and also provides money for the pay and allowances of defense contractors providing support to military members. The pay for federal civilians and contractors would also extend to those working for the Department of Homeland Security for Coast Guard-related duties.
No guidance is included on determining how civilians and contractors providing support will be identified, but supporters said they expect this to be a liberally applied standard.
This is not a permanent exemption. It expires on Jan. 1, 2015, and does not appear to guarantee full pay in a situation where the U.S. runs out of cash to pay its bills, something that could happen as a result of the separate debt ceiling crisis.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., called the bill “a farce” because the measure does nothing to lessen the wide impact a shutdown would have on the Defense Department, including furloughs for up to 400,000 federal civilians, slowdowns in maintenance and training and contract delays. Defense officials warned Friday that stateside commissaries would close, people on temporary duty orders would be ordered to return home and promotion boards could be delayed.
“It is nice but it does not fix what’s wrong,” said Rep. David Price, D-N.C.
There is no indication the U.S. Senate will pass the bill or that President Obama would sign it. Because it is not required before Oct. 7, the Senate would wait several days before passing the measure to keep pressure on lawmakers to resolve the budget standoff.
“The purpose of the bill is to provide pay without interruption,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. “Our troops should not suffer because of our inability to act.”
“We ought to be able to agree that our soldiers should be paid and paid on time,” Kingston said.
Despite the overwhelming vote for the military pay bill, there were detractors, especially those representing areas with big concentrations of federal workers.
“All federal employees should be paid, not just the military,” said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.
“I refer to this bill as selective responsibility,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who has pushed for pay equity between military and federal civilian workers. “All federal employees are joined together as one team,” he said.
“This bill does not cover the FBI, it doesn’t cover the CIA,” Hoyer said, adding it also doesn’t help Border Patrol, Centers for Disease Control or National Institutes of Health, all of which have people involved in critically important jobs.
Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., called the bill “an act of political theater” because it doesn’t prevent scaling back of military medical functions, education or training, it doesn’t stop reductions in maintenance, guarantee death benefits and stop disruptions in contracts.
“The problem with this bill is that it assumes there is going to be a government shutdown,” said Moran. “Otherwise, there would be no need to separate military and civilian personnel.”
To avoid a shutdown, the House passed for the second time a bill to keep the government running through Dec. 15. The newest version delays by one year the implementation of Obamacare, something a White House spokesman said earlier Saturday was not acceptable. The bill now goes back to the Senate, which on Friday passed a short-term funding bill to keep the government running through Nov. 15. That bill included no restrictions on Obamacare.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called the House vote “pointless.”
“The Senate will reject any Republican attempt to force changes to the Affordable Care Act through a mandatory government funding bill or the debt ceiling. Furthermore, President Obama has stated that he would veto such measures if they ever reached his desk.”
The Senate is not scheduled to be in session before 2 p.m. Monday, leaving just 10 hours before government funding expires and federal offices begin the four- to eight-hour process of suspending nonessential functions.