Pence Sharpens Shutdown Attacks in Remarks to Overseas Troops

(Bloomberg) -- Vice President Mike Pence used a visit with U.S. troops in the Middle East to blast Democrats for the partial government shutdown back in Washington, saying “you deserve better,” even as military officials stress that essential operations won’t be affected.

“A minority in the Senate has decided to play politics with military pay,” Pence told soldiers in Jordan, near the Syrian border, on Sunday. “You and your families shouldn’t have to worry for one minute about whether you’re going to get paid as you serve in the uniform of the United States.”

Pence told reporters that he spoke with President Donald Trump on Saturday night regarding the impasse. In his comments to troops, the vice president said the administration will demand that “they” -- he didn’t mention Democrats by name -- reopen the government.

“We’re not going to reopen negotiations on illegal immigration until they reopen the government and give you, our soldiers and your families, the benefits and wages you’ve earned,” Pence said.

Senate Democrats are refusing to fund the government without a deal to protect undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, known as Dreamers. Republicans backed away from a compromise that seemed possible as recently as Friday following a meeting between Trump and Senator Chuck Schumer.

Warnings Abound

Republicans, from Trump and Pence on down, have said the shutdown puts the nation’s defenses at risk. Their comments came even as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis maintains essential military efforts will continue unimpeded. Democratic leaders, looking to shape the narrative of the shutdown, also warned Saturday of the impact on the military.

Mattis, in a letter to troops on Friday in anticipation of a shutdown, said daily operations around the world will continue and active forces will stay in their posts.

“Ships and submarines will remain at sea, our aircraft will continue to fly and our warfighters will continue to pursue terrorists throughout the Middle East, Africa and South Asia,” Mattis wrote in the memo to all defense personnel. “Steady as she goes -- hold the line. I know our Nation can count on you.”

Even military television and radio broadcasts that rely on furloughed civil government employees have been deemed an operational necessity and will remain active, Department of Defense spokeswoman Dana White said. One channel is news funded by money already paid on a contract, and while a sports channel is not an essential activity, it can be maintained without incurring additional cost, White said on Sunday.

‘Obstructionist Losers’

Those comments conflicted with those of Trump, Pence and some Republican lawmakers who said the shutdown is harming the U.S.’s ability to protect its citizens. “Democrats are holding our Military hostage over their desire to have unchecked illegal immigration. Can’t let that happen!” Trump tweeted Saturday morning.

“When Democrats start paying our armed forces and first responders we will reopen negotiations,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement late Friday that termed Democrats “obstructionist losers.”

Pence on Saturday, speaking to U.S. troops during a brief refueling stop in Ireland on his way to Egypt, also complained that Democrats “put politics ahead of our national defense, put politics ahead of meeting the obligations of our national government.”

Troops v. ‘Illegals’

The vice president tweeted photos showing him meeting troops on their way to Kuwait for a six-month deployment. “It’s disappointing to every American that Democrats in the Senate would shutdown the gov’t when we have troops in harms way,” he said on Twitter.

Representative Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican running for the Senate, said Democrats chose “illegals over our American troops” and that more than 2 million members of the military won’t get a paycheck as a result.

Democrats didn’t ignore the possible military impact of the shutdown they blame on Trump and his allies in Congress.

Certainty Wanted

Schumer, in a Senate floor speech on Saturday, said the military “has to be given the certainty it needs” with longer-term spending legislation. And his House counterpart Nancy Pelosi cited earlier comments by Mattis about budget uncertainty hurting the military.

While active troops will remain on the job, reserve training operations would be curtailed and as much as 50 percent of the military’s civilian workforce could be furloughed, Mattis said on Friday.

Paychecks could also be disrupted if the shutdown drags on. Active military, reserve and national guard members will only be paid for money earned before Jan. 20, according to the Pentagon. Any deal to reopen the government would almost assuredly include back pay for troops, meaning they wouldn’t see a cut if the shutdown is resolved within days. Military paychecks are issued twice a month and are next scheduled for Feb. 1 and then Feb. 15.

Mattis, in Friday’s letter, said the Defense Department would “do our best to mitigate” any financial burdens on members of the military and their families.

Basketball Canceled

The Air Force Academy, which uses appropriated funds to pay for its sports programs, canceled all athletics activities until further notice, including men’s and women’s basketball match-ups with Fresno State on Saturday. Funding for the Army and the Naval Academy come from other sources so their athletic programs will continue.

Military leaders hope to benefit from an eventual spending deal for the rest of fiscal 2018 that lawmakers are still negotiating. Congressional Republican leaders want to boost defense spending around $74 billion over the statutory cap of $549 billion set under the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Mattis said Friday that, in general, delays over the budget have been damaging, although he didn’t tie that specifically to the latest machinations in Congress.

“No enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the U.S. military than” the “budgetary confusion” imposed by the caps and by stopgap spending measures passed by Congress, Mattis said.

The negotiations have been slowed down, in part, by Democrats’ demand that spending for non-military domestic programs be increased by as much as Pentagon funding. Conservatives have opposed increases in domestic spending.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.