* Move due to looming $46 billion cut in defense spending
* Plan would reduce costs by up to $5 billion
* Obama aims to increase pressure on Republicans over cuts
By David Alexander
WASHINGTON, Feb 20 Defense Secretary Leon
Panetta formally notified Congress on Wednesday that the
Pentagon plans to put civilian defense employees on unpaid leave
this year if $46 billion in across-the-board U.S. government
spending cuts take effect on March 1.
The announcement of congressional notification begins a
45-day process that could ultimately lead to 22 days of unpaid
leave for most of the department's 800,000 civilian employees
around the globe.
In a letter released by House of Representatives Speaker
John Boehner, Panetta said the furloughs would be "disruptive
and damaging" to the Pentagon's defense mission, but there were
no "viable alternatives" to reduce spending if the budget cuts
President Barack Obama has been sounding the alarm about the
impact of the $85 billion in automatic across-the-board
government spending cuts due to take effect starting next month.
The president turned to local television stations across the
country on Wednesday to increase public pressure on
congressional Republicans to avert the cuts.
In addition, Secretary of State John Kerry defended U.S.
foreign affairs spending against the backdrop of looming cuts,
saying it protects U.S. security and creates jobs.
"Foreign assistance is not a giveaway. It's not charity. It
is an investment in a strong America and in a free world," Kerry
said at the University of Virginia.
An administration official, who asked not to be named, said
that even White House operations will be not spared under the
Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale said there would be "very
limited exceptions" to the furloughs, including civilians in
combat zones, foreign civilians at overseas bases, some police
and healthcare workers and political appointees exempted by law.
Hale declined to estimate what percentage of the civilian
workers were likely to be furloughed but said it would be more
than half. Another defense official said, "we expect more than
80 percent to be furloughed."
The unpaid leave, which will essentially cut the pay of
civilian employees by 20 percent, is expected to save up to $5
billion, one of many cuts required as the Pentagon tries to
slash $46 billion in spending by the end of the year.
The across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration, are due
to take effect on March 1 unless Congress decides to delay them.
They were mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 because
lawmakers and the White House failed to reach a compromise on
alternative spending reductions.
The Defense Department, which had warned for weeks about the
furlough plan, has imposed a hiring freeze on civilian personnel
and ordered the termination of many of its 46,000 temporary and
contract workers. Officials said about 6,000 had already been
laid off, with more likely to come.
The Pentagon has stressed that most civilian defense
employees are not working at desks in Washington but are spread
across the country doing jobs like teaching, nursing and
The greatest impacts will be in Virginia, which will be hit
with lost payroll of $660.8 million; California, with $419.7
million; Maryland, with $359.3 million; Texas, with $290.8
million; and Georgia, with $203.1 million. Vermont will take the
smallest hit, with lost payroll of $3 million.
Panetta announced the congressional notification in a
message to department employees as he was traveling to Brussels
for a NATO meeting, where he was expected to warn Western allies
that looming budget cuts would affect U.S. contributions to NATO
REQUESTS FOR EXCEPTIONS TO BE REVIEWED
"We think the alliance's readiness could be diminished if
sequestration takes effect," Pentagon spokesman George Little
told reporters flying with Panetta to Brussels. He noted that
bilateral training with European allies could be affected, as
could rotational deployment of U.S. forces to Europe.
"You put this all together, lack of U.S. readiness equals
NATO lack of readiness," Little said, adding that Panetta had
been "very unhappy" earlier in the day about having to issue the
message on civilian furloughs.
In his note to defense employees, Panetta said the
department was "doing everything possible to limit the worst
effects" of sequestration, "but I regret that our flexibility
within the law is extremely limited."
"The president has used his legal authority to exempt
military personnel funding from sequestration, but we have no
legal authority to exempt civilian personnel funding from
reductions," he added.
The Pentagon is required by law to advise Congress 45 days
before furloughing any workers. The department is planning to
put most civilian workers on unpaid leave for one day a week for
22 weeks between April and Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
The military services also were formally notified of the
decision on Wednesday and have until early March to ask the
Pentagon for exceptions, officials said.
The Defense Department will review the requests and approve
exceptions by mid-March, after which workers will receive 30
days notice of the impending furloughs, they said.
Hale told reporters that Pentagon officials felt compelled
to move ahead with civilian furloughs because of increasing
financial pressure on the department's operations and
maintenance account, which is used to pay for the war effort in
"Furloughs are really the only way we have to quickly cut
civilian personnel funding," Hale told reporters at a briefing.