Pentagon issues furlough notice as ‘sequester’ budget cuts loom

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.

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.

You’ve heard the word “sequester” mentioned by politicians a lot lately. The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains what the term means, and why it matters. (The Washington Post)

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.

“If Congress allows this meat-cleaver approach to take place, it will jeopardize our military readiness,” President Obama said in a speech Tuesday morning. “It will eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a statement Wednesday blaming the White House for not doing enough to nudge Senate Democrats toward a compromise.

“As the commander in chief, President Obama is ultimately responsible for our military readiness,” Boehner said. “So it’s fair to ask: what is he doing to stop [these cuts] that would ‘hollow out’ our Armed Forces?”

In Charlottesville, Kerry argued that America’s duties and ambitions overseas are too important to shortchange, even in a time of tight budgets. “In today’s global world, there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy,” he said.

If forced to pull back from the world by budget cuts, Kerry said, “the vacuum we would leave by retreating within ourselves will quickly be filled by those whose interests differ dramatically from our own.”

He called for heading off the March 1 automatic budget cuts that would force furloughs at the State Department, as well as the Pentagon and other federal agencies.

“In these days of a looming budget sequester that everyone actually wants to avoid, or most, we can’t be strong in the world unless we are strong at home,” Kerry said. “My credibility as a diplomat, working to help other countries create order, is strongest when America at last puts its own fiscal house in order, and that has to be now.”

He added: “It’s hard to tell the leadership of any number of countries that they have to resolve their economic issues if we don’t resolve our own. Let’s reach a responsible agreement that prevents these senseless cuts. Let’s not lose this opportunity because of politics.

The budget request of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development for 2012 was $51.6 billion. Although Kerry didn’t make a direct comparison, the Pentagon spent an estimated $115 billion on the Afghanistan war in the same year.

Kerry embarks on his first foreign trip as secretary next week, a lengthy tour of European and Arab capitals that will largely focus on international proposals to end the grinding civil war in Syria.

Ed O’Keefe, Felicia Sonmez and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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