WASHINGTON (AP) — As many as 700,000 civilian employees at the Defense Department will be furloughed for as long as 14 work days beginning in June, eight fewer days than originally anticipated after Congress gave military officials greater flexibility to apportion automatic budget cuts driving the layoffs.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described the reduction from 22 days to two weeks as "good news" during a Pentagon news conference Thursday.
Hagel also announced that President Barack Obama has nominated Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove to take over as commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Europe.
Furlough notices will be sent out in early May, and the furloughs will begin in June and last through September. Employees will be furloughed for one day in each of the last 14 weeks of the 2013 budget year.
The thorny issue of who will be exempt from the furloughs remains unresolved. Pentagon officials have estimated that at least 10 percent of the department's roughly 800,000 civilian workers will not face furloughs, but they have declined to identify them.
The Pentagon previously has said it will not furlough civilians in the war zone and in critical public safety jobs, or people whose jobs are not paid for through congressional funding. Also exempt are as many as 50,000 foreign nationals who work for the department but are covered by international agreements.
The automatic cuts took effect March 1, triggered by Congress' failure to trim the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade. The Pentagon initially faced a $46 billion budget reduction through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, but Hagel said a new spending bill signed by Obama this week lowered the reduction by roughly $5 billion. That allows the military to start military construction projects and other programs that otherwise would have been delayed.
The furloughs are expected to save about $2.5 billion, Hagel said.
Before the bill was signed, civilians would have been required to take one day a week off without pay for 22 weeks — a 20 percent pay cut for more than five months. The spending bill gave officials the leeway to lessen the salary cuts and spread money around to other key priorities, including training, maintenance and possible ship deployments.
As an example, the Navy had delayed refueling overhauls of two aircraft carriers, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Abraham Lincoln — critical maintenance work that officials said would be a priority if additional funding became available.
Breedlove is the top Air Force commander in Europe. If he's confirmed by the Senate, he would be the first Air Force general to hold the top NATO job since Joseph Ralston served there from 2000-2003. Breedlove would succeed Navy Adm. James Stavridis, who has held the job since 2009.
Obama chose Breedlove after his first choice for the job, Marine Gen. John Allen, announced he would retire after 19 months commanding allied forces in Afghanistan because of his wife's health.
Hagel, who said he met with Breedlove on his way back from a recent trip to Afghanistan, urged the Senate to confirm him quickly.
"We need to get that position filled," he said.
Obama said Breedlove has "served with distinction in assignments at all levels of the U.S. Air Force and around the globe, from Washington to Germany, Italy, Spain and South Korea."