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Despite shutdown, defense workers head back to jobs

The Pentagon announced yesterday that it would order almost all of its 350,000 civilian employees furloughed by the government shutdown back to work this week, a surprise move that will restore normalcy to a vast swath of government.

Pentagon officials said more than 90 percent of its furloughed employees are expected to return to work, under a decision made by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that the workers are needed to support the readiness of the military. The action, supported by members of both parties, will leave about 450,000 of the federal government’s 2.1 million civilian employees on furlough.

In a rare Saturday session, Congress also took steps to relieve the financial concerns of workers who are facing a government shutdown with no end in sight. The Republican-led House unanimously passed a bill that would offer them full pay for the time they are not at their jobs during the shutdown.

While belittling the vote as a distraction that would offer employees “paid vacation,” Democrats who control the Senate said they would pass the bill early next week, and President Obama has said he would sign it.

As a practical matter, the actions taken by the Obama administration and Congress yesterday ease the burden of the shutdown on the federal workforce.

Under a law passed by Congress just before the government shuttered last week, active duty military personnel and civilian Pentagon workers on the job will receive paychecks on time.

Other federal workers – whether on furlough or on the job – will see their paychecks delayed until the government shutdown ends, squeezing workers without a financial cushion.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said the House bill “will not address the serious consequences of the funding lapse, nor will a piecemeal approach to appropriations bills.”

As a political matter, the actions yesterday did not offer clarity on whether Congress would vote to open the government soon, or whether the White House would accept a piecemeal approach to funding the government being pushed by the GOP.

The debate over the shutdown will likely blend this week with discussions about how to raise the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling. Republicans are looking to craft a series of demands, perhaps including entitlement reforms and changes to the tax code, to make in exchange for lifting the debt limit, which is the legal cap on federal borrowing.

The Obama administration warns that it may not be able to make all payments past Oct. 17 unless Congress raises the debt ceiling. Obama says he will not negotiate on either opening the government or raising the debt ceiling, saying those must happen with no strings attached.

Yesterday, the two sides appeared as far apart as they have been. Neither the House nor the Senate plans to meet again until tomorrow afternoon, meaning the shutdown will have lasted at least seven days.

Much of the federal government shut down at midnight last Monday after Republicans said they would not vote to fund agencies without significant changes to the Affordable Care Act, a significant element of which also launched last week. Since then, the White House has maintained that opening the government is as simple as a vote by lawmakers; Republicans continue demand concessions to open the government, while pressing various strategies for reducing the harm of the shutdown.

“It’s really cruel to tell workers they’ll receive back pay once the government opens and then refuse to open the government,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said yesterday on the Senate floor.

After the House vote, Republican leaders called on Senate Democrats and the president to extend the same courtesy to other groups of Americans hurt by the shutdown.

“If it’s important to ease the pain for (federal employees), what about the vets?” House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said. “Do the Democrats not feel it’s important to ease the pain on them?”

“What about the sick children who need access to clinical trials?” Cantor continued.

The House has passed several bills providing funding for the National Institutes of Health and other agencies. The Senate has rejected each bill, insisting on a measure to reopen all parts of the government.

It wasn’t always clear whether Republicans would back the measure to ensure pay for furloughed employees – which has been the tradition in past shutdowns. Last month, some Republicans expressed skepticism about paying workers while they’re off the job.

Since last week, however, the GOP has embraced a strategy of trying to lessen the harm of the shutdown, while pressing forward with a campaign of using the shutdown to try to force Obama to make concessions.

Yesterday, Obama again rejected that approach, saying he will not negotiate on what he regards as the simple task of reopening the government.

“There’s only one way out of this reckless and damaging shutdown: pass a budget that funds our government, with no partisan strings attached,” the president said in his weekly address.

Republicans insist they want the government to be open, but say a negotiation is the only way to do it.

“What normally happens when the two parties disagree on policy is a negotiation,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said yesterday. “Each side gives up a little and gets a little, and you wind up with a bipartisan compromise.”

The Pentagon decision to recall most employees was based on a liberal interpretation of the Pay Our Military Act, a law passed last week that ensures that uniformed members of the military will not have their paychecks delayed by the shutdown.

The bill includes general language exempting Defense Department civilians from furlough if they provide direct support to the military.

After consulting with Pentagon lawyers and Obama administration officials in recent days, Hagel decided that he could justify recalling most of the Pentagon’s furloughed workforce based on that provision.

Those who will most likely receive a green light include people who provide health care to troops and their families; buy, repair or maintain weapons systems; work at commissaries; or acquire other supplies for the military.

Those who might not be covered include auditors, employees who work in public affairs or legislative affairs, or civilian employees of the Army Corps of Engineers, according to a Pentagon memo.

Workers can expect to hear from their managers starting this weekend about whether they can return to their jobs.

The Pentagon’s announcement will affect a vast global workforce, with 86 percent of the department’s civilian employees working outside the Washington metropolitan area.

Hagel’s decision could bring some relief to thousands of private contractors who work for the Defense Department but had faced the threat of layoffs because of the government shutdown.

On Friday, for example, Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin said it would furlough about 3,000 employees next week and expects that number to grow if the budget standoff doesn’t end soon.

“I expect us to significantly reduce - but not eliminate - civilian furloughs under this process,” Hagel said. “We will continue to try to bring all civilian employees back to work as soon as possible. Ultimately, the surest way to end these damaging and irresponsible furloughs, and to enable us to fulfill our mission as a department, is for Congress to pass a budget and restore funds for the entire federal government.”

Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, praised the Pentagon’s decision.

“I am very pleased to see so many of our national security workforce will be able to return to work. Congress gave the Executive Branch broad authority to keep our Armed Forces and dedicated defense civilians working throughout the government shutdown. Though I do not believe the law required these hundreds of thousands of workers to be furloughed in the first place, it is welcome news.”

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Washington Post staff writers Lisa Rein, Paul Kane, Josh Hicks and Marjorie Censer contributed to this report.

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