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Troops are political dynamite in budget battle


Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks to the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division Division troops from Hawaii during a visit to Camp Victory in Baghdad April 7, 2011. REUTERS/Chip Somodevilla/Pool
Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks to the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division Division troops from Hawaii during a visit to Camp Victory in Baghdad April 7, 2011. REUTERS/Chip Somodevilla/Pool

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A looming government shutdown would be felt thousands of miles away by U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and there could be a high political cost for the lawmakers who let it happen.

Soldiers will not get their paychecks for the duration of the shutdown, leaving their families at home struggling to pay the bills.

Some relatives are already furious.

"Thanks for sending my husband to war and not paying him in return," the wife of one soldier exclaimed on a website, fearing delayed pay in the case of a shutdown.

The sharp reaction among military families underscores the political dangers for Republicans and Democrats if they fail to reach agreement on funding the government for the remainder of fiscal 2011 by midnight on Friday.

It also shows how U.S. troops have become a lightning-rod issue in the bitter budget battle in Washington.

Americans may be able to stomach most other fallout from the threatened government shutdown, like closed national parks or museums. But delaying paychecks to troops after nearly a decade of war likely would trigger a visceral response among voters, looking ahead to the 2012 presidential elections.

Many Americans know members of the military, and often count them in their families. There are about 2.2 million active duty, National Guard and reserve members of the armed forces.

CHEERS AND BOOS

Republicans and Democrats were desperate on Thursday to shift the blame for any fallout on troops.

Democrats slammed Republicans for rejecting a measure that would have funded troops while negotiations continued.

"Republicans said no," said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

Republicans in the House passed a stop-gap spending measure that would have, among other things, ensured continued funding for the Pentagon. But President Barack Obama has said he would veto it because it also included $12 billion in additional federal spending cuts.

"If you vote against this bill, you are voting against the troops who are engaged in three wars," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers to a chorus of cheers and boos.

Democrats pushed back. The White House warned that failure to reach a deal would likely delay troops' pay, a message that Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered to troops personally in Iraq on Thursday.

Gates told a U.S. soldier in Iraq that the degree of delay would depend on the length of the shutdown.

Soldiers are usually paid twice a month. If the shutdown begins on April 8, he said, soldiers' initial paychecks would be halved. If the shutdown lasted until April 30, they would miss an entire check. They would only be repaid later.

"I hope this thing doesn't happen, because I know it will be an inconvenience for a lot of troops," Gates said.

ANGRY REACTION

Many U.S. troops live paycheck to paycheck, with the average junior enlisted member -- typically with just a high school degree -- drawing a salary of about $43,000 per year.

The online comment section of Stars and Stripes, the leading Defense Department news publication, was full of angry reaction.

"My wife is back home working and all alone. I am not there to protect her and tell her everything is going to be OK," said one service member deployed abroad.

"There are half a million troops deployed to some ragged country who depend on their paycheck. Taking that away will turn our military upside down," wrote one service member in Afghanistan on the Stars and Stripes website.

Another service member stationed in Germany with his family fretted over the impact.

"Thanks a lot Uncle Sam; you're now the black sheep in the military family," he wrote.

(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan in Baghdad, Thomas Ferraro, Andy Sullivan and Alister Bull in Washington, editing by Xavier Briand)

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