Federal employees who work in downtown Washington will be able to take today off from work without prior approval if they face difficult commutes caused by closed streets and other security measures underway for the funeral services of Ronald Reagan, the Office of Personnel Management announced yesterday.

The OPM announcement, which came shortly before 7 p.m., said the government would operate under an "unscheduled leave" policy typically reserved for major storms and events that lead to snarled traffic and jammed subway trains.

The policy keeps the federal government open, but it gives employees the option of using a vacation day to stay home without prior approval of supervisors.

The option may be attractive to some employees if police block downtown streets near their offices or if this afternoon's motorcade bearing Reagan's flag-draped coffin creates huge backups on major roads.

"This action will significantly decrease the volume of vehicles and employees entering and departing the city," OPM said in its announcement.

An administration official encouraged employees to follow news reports on street closings, which he said could begin by 3 p.m. today. He said officials were worried about potential traffic jams this afternoon if government workers began to leave downtown as mourners began arriving to stand in line at the Capitol to pay their respects to the 40th president. Public viewing will begin at 9 p.m. and last until 7 a.m. Friday.

OPM officials noted that the unscheduled leave option would probably not affect employees working at the Pentagon, the National Institutes of Health, the CIA and other agencies away from downtown Washington.

The White House earlier announced that federal offices across the nation will close Friday as part of the official day of mourning for Reagan. Friday's closing of the government is in keeping with long White House tradition.

In 1994, Bill Clinton closed the government on April 27 to honor Richard M. Nixon. Services for Nixon, who had died in New York on April 22, were held that day in California.

Nixon, who served as president from 1969 to 1974, closed the government three times as a gesture of respect for former presidents. Federal offices closed in 1969 in honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1972 to honor Harry S. Truman, and in 1973 to mourn Lyndon B. Johnson.

During World War II, the Truman administration closed federal offices on the afternoon of April 14, 1945 -- a Saturday -- for the funeral of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Because of the war, government employees were working six-day weeks.

Truman issued a proclamation on April 13 declaring the Saturday a national day of mourning, and his secretary of state, Edward Stettinius, issued an administrative order to close the government for the afternoon.

The White House released Bush's executive order closing federal offices nationwide late Sunday. The closing includes the U.S. Postal Service, which will cease most operations Friday and will resume regular delivery and retail operations on Saturday.

Some federal offices, however, may remain open on Friday at the discretion of agency heads. The executive order permits offices essential for national defense, homeland security, foreign affairs, law enforcement and other essential business to continue operations.

At the Pentagon, a number of offices will be staffed to monitor Iraq and other especially sensitive areas around the globe, a spokeswoman said.

Because of security considerations, law enforcement agencies will have most, if not all, agents on duty or standing by for assignment, officials said.

At the Department of Homeland Security, staffing decisions will be left to the discretion of managers. In determining who works on Friday, managers should take into account the increased security planned for the Washington area this week, Janet Hale, the department's undersecretary for management, said in a memo. "Decisions on keeping offices and installations open are to be balanced with the solemnity of this occasion as a national day of mourning," she said.

Diary Live Today

What steps should be taken to fix the federal hiring process?

Please join us at noon today for an online discussion with Marcia Marsh of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com. Marsh, a vice president at the partnership, testified this week at a House civil service subcommittee hearing on ways to improve the federal hiring process.

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