Washington (AP) — The Defense Department is poised to trim the number of civilian furlough days from 14 to 11 or fewer as it tries to find ways to deal with mandatory spending cuts, and is likely to let the military services expand the types of workers that will be exempt from the unpaid day off requirements, military officials say.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to announce a decision on the hotly contested issue as early as Tuesday, and officials said the final decision continues to be refined.
Defense officials said that at this point, notification deadlines and other administrative requirements make it difficult for the department to squeeze in more than 12 furlough days by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. They said some senior leaders wanted to reduce the furloughs as much as possible, perhaps to nine or fewer.
Congressionally mandated automatic budget cuts initially forced the Pentagon to warn that the bulk of its 800,000 civilians would be forced to take 22 unpaid days off — one in each of the last 22 weeks of the fiscal year. When lawmakers approved a new spending bill at the end of March they gave the Pentagon greater latitude to find savings, and the furlough days were cut to 14.
Under pressure from military leaders and members of Congress, the Pentagon is now expected to also allow the military services to avoid furloughs for tens of thousands of workers at depots and shipyards if they choose to do so. Civilians make up the bulk of the workforce at those facilities and are key to keeping production lines going and preventing major backlogs in the repairs of ships and combat vehicles.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the ongoing deliberations.
Dropping the number of furlough days below 10 has been a major discussion point because under the rules, civilian workers could lose a sick day and a vacation day if they take 80 hours of unpaid leave.
Defense and military officials have been debating for weeks how to divide up the $7.5 billion-plus it now has the authority to shift from lower priority accounts to more vital operations and maintenance programs. While some argued to use the money to reduce or eliminate furlough days, others said it should be directed at other priorities, including flight and combat training and the massive effort to bring tons of equipment out of Afghanistan.
The Defense Department received authority from Congress to shift about $7.5 billion, and officials said the department has been able to identify at least another $1 billion that can be moved in smaller increments from other accounts and doesn't require congressional approval.
Navy officials said they initially thought they may get authority to move as much as $750 million into operations and maintenance accounts, and top leaders pressed for the ability to use the money to eliminate the need to furlough any of their 200,000 naval civilians.
Other military and defense leaders, however, argued for a "one team, one fight" process, insisting that all military civilians should be treated the same and given equal days off without pay.
The Air Force and Army also wanted to use some of the money to fund other priorities that more directly impacted their ability to give soldiers and airmen the training and equipment they need to fight. The Air Force wants to restart training flights for units that were grounded due to budget cuts, and the Army wants to restore combat training that has been delayed for some of its troops.
The Army, which is the largest service and has been carrying the bulk of the burden for the war in Afghanistan, also is facing massive bills for the removal of equipment from Afghanistan.
Defense officials said it will cost the military between $5 billion and $7 billion to get the trucks, armored vehicles and other equipment out of the war zone, and either bring it home, transfer it to other allies or destroy it so that technologies won't be compromised.
Because the vast majority of the equipment belongs to the Army, service officials made it clear that those expenses would eat up most of the funding and make it difficult to find any money to cut the number of furlough days for its 330,000 civilians.
According to officials, as much as $5 billion of the reprogrammed money may be allocated to the Army, leaving the other services with less than they had wanted.
Navy officials, meanwhile have said they want to use about $200 million in order to avoid furloughs for about 30,000 shipyard workers. The Navy has argued that furloughing the workers will end up costing the service more than the salary cuts would save. According to a Navy analysis, forcing the workers to take one day a week off for two to three weeks would extend the ship maintenance time and trigger a ripple effect that will create a backlog, delay deployments and force other ships to remain at sea longer, increasing their costs.
The Air Force, meanwhile, has asked for authority to shift $1.8 billion, hoping to pay for three main priorities: the restoration of flight hours, funds for weapons systems and the possible reduction in civilian furloughs. The Air Force expects a $4 billion shortfall in operations and maintenance accounts.