The head of the federal personnel agency assured her staff in a town hall Thursday that the Trump administration probably won’t carry out its threat to furlough — and possibly lay off — 150 of the department’s employees over a dispute with Congress about its future.

As The Washington Post first reported last week, the warning sent a shock wave through the Office of Personnel Management, where the agency’s leaders were prepared to send career employees home without pay on Oct. 1. It was the latest and most dramatic escalation in a tug of war between the White House, which wants to eliminate the department, and Congress, which has signaled it would preserve it.

But in the Thursday OPM meeting, acting director Margaret Weichert sought to mollify an anxious workforce and recast the administration’s ultimatum. She said she doesn’t anticipate furloughs being necessary and said the plan, outlined in an internal briefing document, was merely a last resort. It was a way to sound an alarm among latent lawmakers, she told her employees.

“There is no plan; there is no list,” she said. “We did not threaten Congress to furlough people.”

She told the audience she couldn’t rule it out but said, “If the time comes, we will take care of people.” Some in the crowd, complaining about mixed messages, thanked her for her commitment but said they were still confused.

Weichert’s remarks were first reported by Government Executive and were confirmed by The Post, which obtained video of the meeting.

Trump appointees have had their sights set on dismantling the 5,565-employee department for months. Administration officials call it the epitome of a sluggish bureaucracy, which they want to shrink.

However, House Democrats and some Republicans have said they would fight the effort, stymieing executive officials spoiling for structural change.

The standoff has spurred Weichert to tell staff members, as she did at this week’s town hall, that she’s “playing chicken with Congress.” But her critics have said she’s simply carrying out the president’s plan by starving the agency until it withers away.

But Weichert, who is also deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said Congress is to blame for her departments’ budget troubles.

“We are in a situation not of our own making,” she said. “It is a situation created by Congress. … What I am doing is trying to ensure that Congress doesn’t do what it has done for the last 10 years, which is effectively ignore this agency.”

The proposed elimination of a major federal agency — something no president has done since World War II — would pull apart the OPM and divide it among three other departments.

Most of its functions would move to the General Services Administration, the government’s real estate and procurement arm. The OPM’s leadership would shift from an agency director to a Senate-confirmed deputy in the GSA and a position within the White House budget office responsible for federal workforce policy that the president would appoint.

The OPM’s backlogged security clearance system already is shifting to the Defense Department, through legislation passed by Congress. It’s this transfer that previously served as Weichert’s rationale for the furloughs because it would leave a $70 million hole in the OPM’s budget. Nearly $50 million of that can be made up through other sources, but the rest of the shortfall would be covered by eliminating the 150 jobs.

In a statement Friday, Weichert said she has repeatedly made a case for the overhaul in meetings with members of Congress.

“In each of these discussions, OPM leaders have shared a consistent message that money, while definitely a short term challenge, is only one part of the structural challenges facing the agency,” she said. “OPM needs to invest in fundamental structural change to ensure it has the technology and structure required to pursue our mission in the 21st Century.”

But at the town hall, OPM workers expressed frustration about the future of the department — and of their jobs.

One employee told Weichert it felt like she was going to “use me up until you furlough me.”

“I trusted at the beginning some of the things you were saying,” said the employee, who was not identified. “But every day, it’s something different. I’m very confused right now about who is saying what to whom and who is giving the deadlines. I don’t know, I just am very perplexed right now.”

Lisa Rein contributed to this report.

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