WASHINGTON - For days lawmakers have debated which federal workers should be put back to work. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ended the argument Saturday for most Pentagon civilian employees, ordering nearly all 350,000 back on the job.
That's a large chunk of the estimated 800,000 federal workers on furlough because of the partial government shutdown. All those in the government off the job or working without paychecks would benefit from a bill the House approved Saturday without dissent that orders them to be paid once the shutdown ends.
The back-pay bill and Hagel's decision, based on a bill supported by Republicans and Democrats and signed into law by President Barack Obama, would appear to take a big bite out of the impact of the political impasse that has left the government without a budget. With an unprecedented default on the federal debt in less than two weeks, key members of both parties concede that no one has presented a plausible plan for avoiding it.
Hagel said he based his decision on a Pentagon interpretation of a law called the Pay Our Military Act, which was passed shortly before the partial government shutdown began last Tuesday. Republican lawmakers had complained in recent days that the Obama administration was slow to bring back those workers even though the law allowed it.
In a written statement explaining his action, Hagel said the Justice Department advised that the law does not permit a blanket recall of all Pentagon civilians. But government attorneys concluded that the law does allow the Pentagon to eliminate furloughs for "employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members."
Hagel said he has told Pentagon officials, including leaders of the military services, to "identify all employees whose activities fall under these categories." He said civilian workers should stand by for further word this weekend.
In remarks to reporters, Robert Hale, the Pentagon's budget chief, said he did not yet know the exact number of civilians who would be brought back to work but that it would be "90 percent plus." He said there are about 350,000 civilians on furlough, somewhat fewer than the 400,000 that officials had previously indicated. If 90 percent were recalled that would mean 315,000 coming off furlough.
Hale said that even with this relief, the effect of the furloughs has been severe.
"We've seriously harmed civilian morale; this (recall) will be a start back," he said.
Hale said he hoped that a "substantial number" could be returned to work on Monday but that an exact timetable was not available.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats continued to bicker and to ponder the chasm between their warring parties, each of which seems convinced it's on the winning side morally and politically. House Speaker John Boehner, asked Saturday whether Congress was any closer to resolving the impasse, replied: "No." Aides say he has not figured out how to end the gridlock.
Even the top bipartisan achievement of the shutdown's fifth day - agreeing to pay furloughed federal employees for the work days they are missing - was a thin victory. Congress made the same deal after the mid-1990s shutdowns, and Saturday's 407-0 vote was widely expected.
Still, it triggered the sort of derisive quarreling that has prevented Congress from resolving the larger funding and debt dilemmas.
"Of all the bizarre moments" involved in the debate, said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, "this may be the most bizarre: that we will pay people not to work." He called it "the new tea party sense of fiscal responsibility."
House Republicans said they want to ease the pain from the partial shutdown. Democrats said Congress should fully re-open the government and let employees work for the pay they're going to receive.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Saturday the Democratic-controlled Senate will approve retroactive pay for furloughed workers, although he didn't specify when.
The politics of the shutdown have merged with partisan wrangling over the graver issue of raising the federal debt limit by Oct. 17. If that doesn't happen, the White House says, the government will be unable to pay all its bills, including interest on debt. Economists say a U.S. default would stun world markets and likely send this nation, and possibly others, into recession.
Boehner, R-Ohio, and Obama say they abhor the idea of a default. But they and their respective parties have not budged from positions that bar a solution.
Obama says he will not negotiate tax and spending issues if they are linked to a debt-ceiling hike. Boehner and his GOP allies say they will not raise the ceiling unless Democrats agree to deep spending cuts.
Many House Republicans also demand curbs to Obama's signature health care law as a condition of reopening the government. The president and his allies call the demand absurd.