A half a world away from the Capitol Hill deadlock, the economy and debt crisis are weighing heavily on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
And the top question on their minds Saturday even as bombings rocked the city around them, was one the top U.S. military officer couldn't answer.
Will we get paid?
"I honestly can't answer that question," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told troops at Kandahar air base in southern Afghanistan, as several expressed anxiety over budget wrangling in Washington.
Mullen also told them they would continue to go to work each day.
But he offered a bit more optimism than defense officials have acknowledged when those questions have come up in recent weeks. He said he believed that troops would be paid eventually, regardless of what happens.
"I have confidence that at some point in time, whatever compensation you are owed, you will be given," said Mullen, who is making his 15th trip to Afghanistan, just two months before he retires. But, he noted, "There are plenty of you living paycheck to paycheck so if paychecks were stopped it would have a devastating impact very quickly."
"I'd like to give you a better answer than that right now, I just honestly don't know," he said.
Questions on military spending and how the ongoing budget struggles will impact them dominated the morning meeting at the Kandahar base, and it was the first one Marines asked when he moved on to Camp Leatherneck.
The U.S. has warned that it will run out of money to pay all of its bills after August 2 without a deal from Congress to raise a $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. Where U.S. troops fall in priority for payment in a default has not been made clear.
With $172 billion of revenue between August 3 and August 31, the U.S. Treasury could fully fund Social Security payments, Medicare and Medicaid, interest on the debt, defense vendor payments and unemployment insurance, found a study by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center.
But that would leave entire government departments — such as Labor, Commerce, Energy and Justice — unfunded, and many others unpaid, like active-duty troops and the federal workforce.
Focus on money, jobs
Troops pressed Mullen on how much the Pentagon is spending on contractors, when many tasks could be done by military members. They questioned whether the budget pressures will focus on pay or equipment and other acquisition. They bemoaned what it could cost to implement the new policy repealing the ban on openly gay men and women serving in the military. And they wondered if their retirement pay was safe.
For his part, Mullen said the cost of repealing the gay ban was very limited. And he said there were no immediate plans to affect retirement benefits.
Mullen was visiting troops across southern Afghanistan on Saturday, a region that has been pummeled by violence and suicide attacks in recent weeks.
But there were only a smattering of questions on the military strategy or the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which is beginning with a 10,000 drawdown by the end of this year.
Instead, it was all about money and job.
Mullen warned the troops that as time goes on, budget restrictions will pare down the size of the military, and he told them to keep that in mind as they pursue their education and try to further their careers so they will have a better chance of re-enlisting.
But in the end, he punted the questions back to Capitol Hill.
Asked whether Congress members would cut their own benefits if they acted to cut military pay, Mullen triggered chuckles when he recommended the troops e-mail their representatives with that query.
"They're the ones that can answer that particular question," he said at a town hall-style gathering of soldiers in Kandahar.
While a group of congressmen pushed forward a bill this week to ensure that the active military servicemen still get paid in the case of default, there's no firm plan yet.
The White House hasn't made any assurances and neither has the Treasury Department.
Some financial organizations that service military clients, like USAA and the Andrews Federal Credit Union, have stepped up to say that they will advance pay if there is a default.
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