US pentagon to recall 400,000 defence employees

Saturday 05 October 2013 23.25
Barack Obama is struggling to strike a deal with Congress over funding impasse
Barack Obama is struggling to strike a deal with Congress over funding impasse

The US Pentagon has said it will recall most of the roughly 400,000 civilian defence department employees sent home during the government shutdown.

The move could greatly lessen the impact of feuding in Washington on US armed forces.

Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said a legal review of the"Pay Our Military Act," signed by President Barack Obama would allow him to bring a still-unspecified number of civilians back to work next week.

Mr Hagel: "I expect us to be able to significantly reduce - but noteliminate - civilian furloughs under this process," 

He said: "Employees can expect to hear more information from their managers starting this weekend."

Since the start of the shutdown, American troops have felt the fallout from the feuding in Washington despite legislation meant to protect them. 

Republicans in the House of Representatives have tried to defund or delay Mr Obama's signature healthcare law as a condition of funding the US government, leading to the impasse.

With the shutdown, sailors have complained about delays in annual payments of re-enlistment bonuses.

Military academies have scaled back classes and key Pentagon offices have been hollowed out.

Even US commissaries selling groceries to military families have been shuttered.

For many of the civilians, it was the second time in as many months they were forced to take unpaid leave.

More than 600,000 civilian US defence employees were required to take unpaid leave in early August.

The move was to reduce spending after across-the-board budget cuts went into force in March.

"This has been a very disruptive year for our people," Mr Hagel said.

Mr Hagel said the legal review determined that those civilians could return: "whose responsibilities contribute to the morale,well-being, capabilities and readiness of covered military members."

This apparently did not include certain categories of employees, like legislative affairs personnel who deal with Congress.

Mr Hagel also cautioned that while he would be able to bring back civilians, the "Pay Our Military Act" did not allow for the defence department to pay for some supplies necessary for many of them to do their jobs.

"Critical parts, or supplies, will run out, and there will be limited authority for the Department to purchase more," Mr Hagel said. "If there comes a time that workers are unable to do their work, I will be forced once again to send them home."

Michael Steel, Press secretary for House of Representatives said Mr Hagel's decision was in line with the thinking of Republicans, who passed a bill last week to pay the military during the government shutdown.

"That was always the clear intent of the House-passed bill," Mr Steel said in an email to Reuters.

Democrats have resisted efforts by Republicans to pass bills funding certain parts of the government such as the Veterans Administration and the National Park Service, insisting that the whole government be reopened.

Earlier, the US president Barack Obama said that he does not expect republicans to allow the government to default.

He said that expects that congress will raise the debt ceiling before the 17 October deadline.

Mr Obama said he does not expect to have to take any unusual steps to prevent the US from defaulting on its debt.

"I don't expect to get there," Mr Obama said in an interview with the Associated Press.

He said: "There were at least some quotes yesterday that (House of Representatives) Speaker (John) Boehner is willing to make sure that we don't default," he said.

"And I'm pretty willing to bet that there are enough votes in the House of Representatives right now to make sure that the United States doesn't end up being a deadbeat," Mr Obama said.

Meanwhile, the US is postponing negotiations for a landmark free trade deal with the EU.

The postponement is because of the partial shutdown of the US government, the administration has said.

US Trade Representative Michael Froman called the EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht to say that US officials could not travel to Brussels next week for talks due to the shutdown.

That is according to a statement from Mr Froman's office, known as the USTR.

Whole swaths of America's federal government have been shutdown since last Tuesday morning due to an impasse in Congress over funding for the new fiscal year.

"USTR will work with the (European) Commission to craft an alternative work plan that can begin once the US government shutdown ends," the agency said.

Washington and the EU were due to hold a second round of negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which would be the world's biggest free trade deal.

The US and the EU already are the world's largest trade and investment partners but are struggling with high unemployment, particularly in Europe.

They hope to create jobs on both sides of the Atlantic by striking a deal to eliminate remaining tariffs on their goods and to reduce regulatory barriers to trade.

Mr De Gucht said in a statement that the cancellation of the meetings "in no way distracts us from our overall aim of achieving an ambitious trade and investment deal."