ABC News reports this morning that Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with troops in Baghdad this morning, in part to discuss their concerns over a government shutdown.  After joking that the best policy is to make sure the folks with the guns get paid first, Gates then told the men and women on the front lines that they needn’t worry.  After studying the issue, Gates says they will get paid if the budget runs out tomorrow … for a week:

Speaking to a group of 200 soldiers in Baghdad, Defense Secretary Gates drew Army cheers of “Hooah” from the crowd when he eased their concerns about the government shutdown and said “first of all, let me say you will be paid.”

Gates’s comment came during a question and answer session when one of the soldiers about how the government shutdown might affect them. He then joked, “as a historian it always occurred to me the smart thing for government was always to pay the guys with guns first.”

Turning serious he explained to them how if there is a government shutdown, days the troops in the field would get half a paycheck for this pay period, but get back pay in the future.

“But in all seriousness, based on some stuff I read this morning, if the government shuts down starts on the 8th and goes for a week, you’d get a half a check.  If it goes from the 15th to the 30th, you wouldn’t get a pay check on the 30th but you would be back paid for all of it. So that’s the deal and I’m, you know, frankly, I remember when I was your age I did a lot of living from pay check to pay check and so I hope this thing doesn’t happen.”

The apparent reason for the half-pay is that the pay period would have included one week under the budget.  In other words, the answer is actually no, the troops won’t get paid during a shutdown.  They will get back pay, of course, once Congress acts to authorize spending again, but they won’t get any income until that happens.  That means many of their families will miss rent or house payments, utility bills, and so on, until a budget passes — a fine reward for serving on the front lines of the war on terror.

Congress does have an option.  Republicans have proposed a one-week CR that takes the troops out of the line of fire entirely in the budget battle by fully funding the Department of Defense for the rest of FY2011.  The bill proposes funding the Pentagon with a 1.5% increase from FY2010 but a 2% decrease from Barack Obama’s funding request.  That should be easily passed by Congress even with the $12 billion reduction for one week — if Congress and the White House really believe that funding paychecks for the military is a high priority.

A new CR is not the best option, of course, but it would allow for soldiers to get paid while Washington fixes its problems.  If this doesn’t fly, then perhaps the GOP should pass a defense bill separately and demand that Harry Reid and Barack Obama sign it.  Andy McCarthy suggested such a strategy yesterday rather than attempting an omnibus plan, and the longer that Reid and Obama drag their heels on tiny reductions in federal spending, the better that strategy looks.