Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday that the Pentagon has been able to find enough savings to reduce civilian furloughs to just six days this year, in the latest sign that the budget sequesters aren't biting as deeply as the administration had warned.
Mr. Hagel said Congress gave him the go-ahead to shift money around and optimize spending, which has allowed him to cut from what the Pentagon had initially warned could be 22 days of furloughs, down to six days of unpaid time off.
"The Air Force has begun flying again in key squadrons, the Army has increased funding for organizational training at selected units, and the Navy has restarted some maintenance and ordered deployments that otherwise would not have happened," Mr. Hagel said.
The $85 billion in sequesters took effect on March 1, and in the run-up the Obama administration warned of thousands of women and children being kicked off of government aid programs and food plants shutting down for lack of government meat inspectors.
Some cuts have happened, such as school districts trimming programs or support staff, and food programs saying they have had to reduce their operations, but the worst effects have been muted.
The Pentagon had initially warned of "drastic and irreversible" choices it would have to make, including reduced readiness in about two-thirds of the Army's active brigade combat teams and Air Force flying units operating at below acceptable readiness standards.
Uniformed troops were not subject to furloughs, but civilian employees were — and initially they faced up to 22 days of unpaid time off. In May, that number was reduced to 11, and now has been cut to six days, which some employees have already completed.
Budget watchdogs said the Pentagon's announcement shows the administration can handle lower budgets.
"This move shows that there is plenty of fat in the Pentagon budget that can be cut before our national security is put at risk." said John Hart, spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican.
This year's sequesters are just the first in what, under the 2011 law, are supposed to be annual cuts designed to make up for the debt limit Congress agreed to.
In a report Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office said that the automatic spending cuts will bite to the tune of $91 billion next year, on top of already stiff caps.
Together, they mean government discretionary spending will be limited to $967 billion on in 2014, with about $498 billion going to defense and $469 billion to other needs. Entitlement programs such as Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid are not covered by the limits and will likely continue to grow.
Local leaders in the Washington region praised the Defense Department's furlough decision, saying it will halt some of the economic pain for families.
"Thankfully, by virtue of this decision, DOD employees and their families now face a little less hardship," said Rep. James P. Moran, the Virginia Democrat whose district includes the Pentagon. "Congress must step up and deal with these budget issues in a responsible manner, so that sequestration ends and we stop furloughing our federal workforce."
But he and others said the looming cuts next year must also be stopped, or else employees could face a new round of hardship.
The administration has generally balked at asking Congress for flexibility to manage the cuts, leaving some Republicans to accuse the White House of wanting to make the process as painful as possible in order to boost the president's case for tax increases.
The administration has denied that, saying instead that it will accept some spending cuts but does also want to see tax increases as part of a "balanced" approach.
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