Politics

Defense Secretary Warns if Congress Doesn't Act, Troops Won't Get Paid

A stalled $75 billion emergency supplemental, which includes $37 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, brought Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Capitol Hill Tuesday with a dire warning: unless Congress acts by the end of the month, the troops won't get paid.

The hold-up is a mass of mostly non-defense spending that the House included in its version of the bill which raised the price tag on a Senate-passed measure by $16 billion. 

House add-ons include: $10b to avert teacher layoffs (Dems had wanted as much as $23 billion); about $5b for Pell Grants; $701 million for border security; $180 million for green energy projects; $163 million for schools on military bases; $142 million in additional Gulf Coast oil spill spending; $50 million in emergency food assistance; and $16.5 million to build a soldier processing center at Fort Hood in Texas.

"Secretary Gates is not involved in the politics of the add-ons, but he wants the funding for the troops. And he told us clearly today that it has to be done by the end of this month or he will not be able to pay the troops, because the House is going out at the end of July and won't be back until mid-September," Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell recounted after the GOP lunch meeting with the defense secretary.

A senior Senate Democratic leadership aide told Fox Tuesday that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, has not yet found a path forward but that he expects to clear the measure before the month-long August recess. 

Items will need to be stripped off the House-passed measure, the aide acknowledged to Fox, given GOP objections to deficit spending and Reid's lack of 60 votes to break a filibuster. As well, a chunk of money House Democrats took from an education spending pot to avert teacher layoffs has prompted a veto threat from the White House.  The money, used to help pay for an Obama K-12 reform initiative called "Race to the Top," will need to be restored, the aide added.  

Action must happen soon, as the House is headed out of town on its recess in just three weeks.   Reid was to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, Tuesday night to try find a solution, no doubt wary of election year politics looming large, as any troop funding delay is usually taken up by Republicans with great vigor.

But the calendar is not working in Reid or Pelosi's favor. Once the Senate makes the expected changes to the supplemental, if it can, the measure will have to head back to the House, where another fight on teacher layoffs and war funding, among other things, which hung up the first effort, could reignite.

"This is a true emergency. We need to figure a way to get the funding for the troops in the field, and we need to do it as soon as possible," McConnell said.