By Chris Lawrence
The Pentagon has delayed plans to notify up to 800,000 civilian workers about possible furloughs now that any big spending cuts under the fiscal cliff have been averted.
The tax deal negotiated by the Senate and the White House and approved by Congress on Tuesday would defer substantial cuts in domestic spending, or sequester, for two months.
The Pentagon faced up to $500 billion in spending reductions under congressional plans for the automatic spending cuts.
In a prepared statement, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the deal buys time for lawmakers to come up with a deficit reduction plan that prevents devastating and arbitrary cuts. "Had Congress not acted, the Department of Defense - along with other federal agencies –would have been forced to begin taking dramatic steps that would have severely impacted our civilian personnel and disrupted our mission," Panetta said Wednesday.
While they caught a break this time, defense officials say compressing the timetable could present another challenge if those cuts eventually become law.
“We would face even greater difficulty if sequester takes effect two months from now,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
The Pentagon operates on the fiscal year calendar, October through September. So it would have even less time and less flexibility to implement mandatory budget cuts for this fiscal year. It’s the difference between nine months and seven months.
The Pentagon could still alert its civilian workforce that it may be forced to take unpaid leave, if the mandatory cuts take effect in 60 days.
“Our civilian workforce costs tens of billions of dollars. We would have to tap into it. We were prepared to do the prudent thing and notify them,” Little said.
Although all civilian workers would likely receive notice, only a certain number would be forced to stay home.
“We don’t know if it’s 100,000 or 200,000. But the maximum time a worker can be furloughed is 22 days. So you do the math. We would have to spread the furloughs across a wide spectrum to get the savings required,” Little said.
Sequester only dictates across-the-board budget cuts. It does not specify how the Defense Department would reduce spending.
Panetta said the time to act and prevent the cuts is now. "Congress cannot continue to just kick the can down the road," he said.