WASHINGTON (AP) — For days lawmakers have debated which federal workers should be put back to work. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ended the argument Saturday for most Pentagon civilian employees, ordering nearly all 350,000 back on the job.
That's a large chunk of the estimated 800,000 federal workers on furlough because of the partial government shutdown. All those in the government off the job or working without paychecks would benefit from a bill the House approved Saturday without dissent that orders them to be paid once the shutdown ends.
The back-pay bill and Hagel's decision, based on a bill supported by Republicans and Democrats and signed into law by President Barack Obama, would appear to take a big bite out of the impact of the political impasse that has left the government without a budget. With an unprecedented default on the federal debt in less than two weeks, key members of both parties concede that no one has presented a plausible plan for avoiding it.
Hagel said he based his decision on a Pentagon interpretation of a law called the Pay Our Military Act, which was passed shortly before the partial government shutdown began last Tuesday. Republican lawmakers had complained in recent days that the Obama administration was slow to bring back those workers even though the law allowed it.
In a written statement explaining his action, Hagel said the Justice Department advised that the law does not permit a blanket recall of all Pentagon civilians. But government attorneys concluded that the law does allow the Pentagon to eliminate furloughs for "employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members."
Hagel said he has told Pentagon officials, including leaders of the military services, to "identify all employees whose activities fall under these categories." He said civilian workers should stand by for further word this weekend.
In remarks to reporters, Robert Hale, the Pentagon's budget chief, said he did not yet know the exact number of civilians who would be brought back to work but that it would be "90 percent plus." He said there are about 350,000 civilians on furlough, somewhat fewer than the 400,000 that officials had previously indicated. If 90 percent were recalled that would mean 315,000 coming off furlough.
Hale said that even with this relief, the effect of the furloughs has been severe.
"We've seriously harmed civilian morale; this (recall) will be a start back," he said.
Hale said he hoped that a "substantial number" could be returned to work on Monday but that an exact timetable was not available.