The Pentagon announced Saturday that it would order almost all of its 350,000 furloughed civilian employees back to work this week, a surprise move that could substantially reduce the impact of the government shutdown.
Pentagon officials said more than 90 percent of the employees who were told to stay home are expected to return to work, under a decision made by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that the workers are needed to support the readiness of the military. The action, supported by members of both parties, will leave about 450,000 of the federal government’s 2.1 million civilian employees on furlough.
In a rare Saturday session, Congress also took steps to relieve the financial concerns of workers who are facing a government shutdown with no end in sight. The Republican-led House unanimously passed a bill that would offer them full pay for the time they are not at their jobs during the shutdown.
While belittling the vote as a distraction that would offer employees “paid vacation,” Democrats who control the Senate said they would pass the bill early next week, and President Obama has said he would sign it.
As a practical matter, the actions taken by the Obama administration and Congress on Saturday ease the burden of the shutdown on the federal workforce.
Under a law passed passed by Congress just before the government shuttered last week, active-duty military personnel and civilian Pentagon workers on the job will receive paychecks on time.
Other federal workers — whether on furlough or on the job — will see their paychecks delayed until the government shutdown ends, squeezing workers without a financial cushion.
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said the House bill “will not address the serious consequences of the funding lapse, nor will a piecemeal approach to appropriations bills.”
As a political matter, the actions Saturday did not offer clarity on whether Congress would vote to open the government soon, or if the White House would accept a piecemeal GOP approach to funding the government.
The debate over the shutdown will likely blend this week with discussions about how to raise the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling. Republicans are looking to craft a series of demands, perhaps including entitlement reforms and changes to the tax code, to make in exchange for lifting the debt limit, the legal cap on federal borrowing.
The Obama administration warns that it may not be able to make all payments past Oct. 17 unless Congress raises the debt ceiling. Obama says he will not negotiate on either opening the government or raising the debt ceiling, saying those must happen with no strings attached.
On Saturday, the two sides appeared as far apart as they have been. Neither the House nor the Senate plans to meet again until Monday afternoon, meaning the shutdown will have lasted at least seven days.
Much of the federal government shut down at midnight Monday after Republicans said they would not vote to fund agencies without significant changes to Obama’s health-care law, a significant element of which also launched last week. Since then, the White House has maintained that opening the government is as simple as a vote by lawmakers; Republicans continue to demand concessions to open the government, while pressing various strategies for reducing the harm of the shutdown.
“It’s really cruel to tell workers they’ll receive back pay once the government opens and then refuse to open the government,” Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Saturday on the floor.
After the House vote, Republican leaders called on Democrats and the president to extend the same courtesy to other groups of Americans hurt by the shutdown. “If it’s important to ease the pain for [federal employees], what about the vets?” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said. “Do the Democrats not feel it’s important to ease the pain on them?”
“What about the sick children who need access to clinical trials?” Cantor continued.
The House has passed several bills to fund the National Institutes of Health and other agencies. The Senate has rejected each, insisting on a measure to reopen the whole government.
It wasn’t always clear whether Republicans would back the measure to ensure pay for furloughed employees — which has been the tradition in past shutdowns. Last month, some Republicans expressed skepticism about paying workers while they’re off the job.
Since last week, however, the GOP has embraced a strategy of trying to lessen the harm of the shutdown, while pressing forward with a campaign of using the shutdown to try to force Obama to make concessions.
On Saturday, the president again rejected that approach, saying he will not negotiate on what he regards as the simple task of reopening the government.