WASHINGTON — The Defense Department officially notified its 800,000 civilian employees on Wednesday that they are likely to be placed on periods of unpaid leave as the Pentagon scrambles to find $46 billion in congressionally mandated budget cuts that appear all but certain to kick in next week.
"There is no mistaking that the rigid nature of the cuts forced upon this department, and their scale, will result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force," Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said to employees in a memo issued Wednesday.
The Pentagon, which is required to notify Congress at least 45 days before furloughing employees, told lawmakers Wednesday that the move is likely. Panetta said in the memo to the Pentagon's workforce that affected employees would be notified of the terms of their leave at least 30 days before their furloughs kick in. The Pentagon's tentative plan is to put civilian employees on leave one day per week for 22 weeks.
Uniformed personnel are not subject to furloughs. Panetta held out hope in the memo that the cuts might be avoided. Even if a deal between the White House and Republicans doesn't materialize by March 1, when the automatic cuts go into effect, the parties could in coming weeks reach an agreement that spares the Pentagon.
The move is part of a broader retrenchment of government spending devised by lawmakers in 2011, when they created a framework to reduce the nation's deficit. The across-the-board cuts stipulated in the Budget Control Act were designed to seem so painful and foolish that their prospect, if nothing else, would force Republicans and Democrats to compromise on a measured approach to curtailing federal spending. So far, it has not.
As the deadline approaches, the White House and Republicans have accused each other of intransigence, with no sign that a breakthrough is imminent.
"If Congress allows this meat-cleaver approach to take place, it will jeopardize our military readiness," President Barack Obama said in a speech Tuesday morning. "It will eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement Wednesday blaming the White House for not doing enough to nudge Senate Democrats toward a compromise.
"As the commander in chief, President Obama is ultimately responsible for our military readiness," Boehner said. "So it's fair to ask: what is he doing to stop these cuts that would 'hollow out' our Armed Forces?"