The Defense Department officially notified its 800,000 civilian employees on Wednesday that they are likely to be placed on periods of unpaid leave, as the Obama administration scrambled to deal with congressionally mandated budget cuts set to kick in next week.
“There is no mistaking that the rigid nature of the cuts forced upon this department, and their scale, will result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force,” Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta said to employees in a memo issued Wednesday.
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Secretary of State John F. Kerry separately warned against “retreating” from global diplomacy, as he made the case in a speech at the University of Virginia for retaining or expanding the State Department’s budget and argued that the costs of pulling back from the world would be huge. “Deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow,” he said to applause in his first address outside the department as secretary of state.
With nine days to go before $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts begin, some Democrats on Capitol Hill are calling on Republican leaders to reconvene the House immediately and find a way to avert the spending reductions known as the “sequester.” Both the House and Senate are in recess this week.
“This is an unnecessary self-inflicted wound on the United States economy,” Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.) said in a conference call with other House Democrats to highlight some of the fears and adverse affects of the sequester they’re hearing about back home. “Congress should come back to Washington to fix the problem.” Andrews’s district is home to several government contracting firms.
The Pentagon, faced with $46 billion in cuts, is required to notify Congress at least 45 days before furloughing employees, and officials told lawmakers Wednesday that the move is likely. Panetta said in his memo to the Pentagon’s workforce that affected employees would be notified of the terms of their leave at least 30 days before their furloughs begin. The Pentagon’s tentative plan is to put civilian employees on leave one day per week for 22 weeks.
Uniformed personnel are not subject to furloughs. Panetta held out hope in the memo that the cuts might be avoided. Even if a deal between the White House and Republicans doesn’t materialize by March 1, when the automatic cuts go into effect, the parties could in coming weeks reach an agreement that spares the Pentagon.
The move is part of a broader retrenchment of government spending devised by lawmakers in 2011, when they created a framework to reduce the nation’s deficit. The across-the-board cuts stipulated in the Budget Control Act were designed to seem so painful and foolish that their prospect, if nothing else, would force Republicans and Democrats to compromise on a measured approach to curtailing federal spending. So far, it has not.
As the deadline approaches, the White House and Republicans have accused each other of intransigence, with no sign that a breakthrough is imminent.