Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, speaks at a press conference on the federal budget impasse in Washington on April 8. (Army Times)
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With the clock ticking toward a government shutdown at midnight tonight, political rhetoric is heating up over who is to blame while service members worry about how they and their families will get by without pay.
Thursday night negotiations at the White House on how to keep the government running ended with no agreement, but congressional leaders vowed to keep trying. In a joint statement, House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, "We have narrowed the issues, however, we have not yet reached an agreement."
President Obama said he expected the two congressional leaders to report back to him on Friday morning about progress.
Congress is prepared to work late Friday on the possibility that a shutdown at midnight can be avoided, and House leaders advised lawmakers to be prepared to work over the weekend if a shutdown occurs to try to pass some type of stopgap budget before Monday morning.
Service members feel like pawns in the dispute, and with good reason. If there is no extension of funding, they will be expected to work without pay until a budget is passed, the Defense Department said Thursday. They will be paid on April 15, the next payday, but checks might be half of what they would usually be paid, defense officials have warned.
"I am not ashamed to say that I live paycheck to paycheck," said Army Spc. Samuel Taylor from Lynchburg, Va., current assigned to Fort Hood, Texas. "If this shutdown actually does go through, what am I supposed to tell my family?"
Taylor has a 3-year-old daughter and is engaged, and also has bills to pay, including a $500 payment that is supposed to come directly out of his next check. He says he might be able to cancel that payment, if he only had a clearer picture of what was going to happen.
"I understand the reasoning of the situation, but what I don't understand is how a critical matter such as this went this far without being resolved given the severity of the consequences," he said. "I can't and won't say that I'm ashamed to wear the Army uniform and I'm certainly not taking anyone's side, but I am ashamed of the actions taken or not taken by the people responsible for this."
While Taylor isn't taking sides, there is no reluctance in Congress to blame political opponents for a shutdown that could cost military members their pay.
Army Capt. Mark Natale, a paratrooper and communications officer with the 8th Military Information Support Battalion at the U.S. Special Operations Command, Fort Bragg, N.C., said the budget crisis unfolding in Washington has "far-reaching and dire implications to our men and women in uniform."
"I have had many soldiers ask me, ‘How will I support my family, sir?' and ‘I can't believe that I'm being asked to deploy to a combat zone with no guarantee of getting paid.' I have no good answer to give them," Natale said.
"My concern is not about my bank account, it is about the 18-year-old soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan who is ready to go on a deadly mission in the enemy's home turf and they hear that his wife cannot buy groceries, or that the rent check bounced," Natale said. "The impending government shutdown will destroy the confidence of our troops in our national leaders and will break many families."
House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., targeted President Obama for denying pay to troops. "The president has threatened to veto the bill we just passed to keep our government open and to fund the troops," Cantor said of a bill passed Thursday that included provisions — some of them unrelated to the budget — that the White House found objectionable.
"None of us want a shutdown, all of us have said that," Cantor said. "If we do end up there, there is one thing we feel very strongly about, and that is the men and women who are defending our country, and their families, must be paid."
Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, whose congressional district includes Fort Hood, says the president and Senate Democratic leader "want our troops to suffer" and "don't care whether they are getting shot at."
"I feel that the Democrats are holding our troops hostage, that they truly are, because they choose to do that so they can spend more money," said Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va.
Part of the standoff over government funding involves House Republican efforts to make big cuts in 2011 spending, but senior leadership aides said that dispute has been mostly resolved, with an agreement to reduce about $44 billion in spending including $14 billion from the 2011 defense request.
Democrats, of course, blame Republicans.
Republicans "are willing to shut down the federal government, put our economy, our small businesses, our veterans at risk and potentially delay tax refunds for millions of American families, all simply to make a political point and to try to impose a social agenda," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. "Shutting down the federal government over a woman's right to choose or the federal government's ability to enforce laws that protect our children's health takes irresponsibility to a whole new level."
Those sitting on the sidelines watching the train wreck of the federal budget do not seem amused.
"The partisan bickering and threats of a shutdown are childish and downright dangerous," said Jerry Hotop, national commander of the veterans service organization AmVets. "We have asked our brave military men and women to put their personal concerns and their family concerns aside to uphold and defend the ideals of our great nation. It's unconscionable to think that now their families will be asked to suffer as a result of stubbornness and inaction."