WASHINGTON — With fears the partial government shutdown could drag on for weeks, the Senate is moving legislation that would pay Coast Guard service members, even if the budget stalemate continues.
This week, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., introduced the “Pay Our Coast Guard Act” to keep paying personnel even during a lapse in appropriations.
The exemption also would cover Coast Guard retired benefits, death gratuities and other related payouts.
Seven other senators — three Republican and four Democrats — already have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill and Senate leaders fast-tracked the legislation so that the chamber could vote on it as soon as next week.
If the shutdown continues another week, it will imperil paychecks scheduled for Jan. 15 to more than 50,000 members of the Coast Guard.
About 42,000 of them are required to report to work without pay because they’re deemed essential employees.
Salaries for members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are not affected by the latest government shutdown because the Department of Defense had its full fiscal year funding approved last fall.
But the Coast Guard is funded through the Department of Homeland Security, one of multiple agencies whose budgets lapsed late last month amid a squabble between the White House and congressional Democrats over President Donald Trump’s controversial southern border wall project.
After a week of warning that the shutdown would halt all Coast Guard paychecks, service officials announced on Dec. 28 that Homeland Security officials had found a work around to cover about $75 million needed for the Dec. 31 pay period.
But they also warned that if the shutdown continued they would be unable to repeat that action for the mid-January paychecks.
On Friday, Trump called his most recent meeting with Democratic leaders on the budget impasse “productive” but also confirmed that he told lawmakers he was prepared to keep the government shutdown “for months or years” if they don’t agree to adequately fund his border wall project.
“We won’t be opening the government until this (immigration problem) is solved,” he said. “It’s a bigger problem.”
The Senate legislation — which would also have to be adopted by the House and signed by the president — is among several proposals being discussed on Capitol Hill to blunt some of the impact of the shutdown on about 800,000 federal workers.
More than half of the employees are required to continue working without pay. The others have been furloughed since Dec. 22.
Coast Guard officials insist most of their operations have continued uninterrupted during the funding lapse.
Service exchange locations are scheduled to remain open for now, as will day care centers on Coast Guard bases but several public affairs and public outreach offices have been shuttered.
Cuts to child care subsidies and non-essential travel also loom in the coming days.
Thune’s pay legislation had drawn support from more than a dozen veterans organizations, who say the Coast Guard should be safeguarded from political bouts.
“Many of our members have little tenure in the Coast Guard, which hasn’t allowed ample time for saving enough money to sustain the lapse in even one paycheck,” said Coast Guard Enlisted Association National President Casey Lawrence in a statement. “Many of our members feel that they have been overlooked due to the potential pay lapse.”
Mike Little, executive director for the Sea Service Family Foundation, said passing the legislation early in the new Congress would send a strong message of support to the Coast Guard.
“This shutdown has taken away from valuable time (servicemembers) should have been using to enjoy their families, but instead they spent it stressed beyond belief,” said Little, a Coast Guard spouse.
The Senate is scheduled to return Tuesday to Capitol Hill.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.