WASHINGTONThe Pentagon is ordering most of its approximately 400,000 furloughed civilian employees back to work.
The decision announced Saturday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is based on a Pentagon legal interpretation of a law called the Pay Our Military Act. That measure was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama shortly before the partial government shutdown began Tuesday.
With much of the federal government shut down for a fifth day, one brief spot of compromise emerged in Congress on Saturday when a broad bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives passed a bill granting back pay to federal employees who have been furloughed during the shutdown.
In a written statement explaining his action, Hagel said the Department of Justice advised that the law does not permit a blanket recall of all Pentagon civilians.
But government attorneys concluded that the law does allow the Pentagon to eliminate furloughs for "employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members.'
Hagel said he has told Pentagon officials, including leaders of the military services, to "identify all employees whose activities fall under these categories." He said civilian workers should stand by for further word this weekend.
Hagel had made clear earlier in the past week that Pentagon lawyers were trying to determine ways for some of the Defense Department's 400,000 furloughed civilians to get back to work.
He told reporters traveling with him Tuesday in South Korea, "It does have an effect on our relationships around the world and it cuts straight to the obvious question: Can you rely on the United States as a reliable partner to fulfill its commitments to its allies?"
The Pentagon did not immediately say on Saturday exactly how many workers will return to work. The Defense Department said "most" were being brought back.
The law ensured that members of the military, who have remained at work throughout the shutdown, would be paid on time. It also left room for the Pentagon to keep on the job those civilians who provide support to the military.
On Capitol Hill, the bill granting back pay to furloughed workers was approved by a margin of 407 to zero. Twenty-five members did not vote. In a press conference after the vote, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the House "took another step to try and ease the pain of the federal government shutdown."
The White House has signaled strong support for the proposal.
"Federal workers keep the Nation safe and secure and provide vital services that support the economic security of American families," a statement from the White House read. "The Administration appreciates that the Congress is acting promptly to move this bipartisan legislation and looks forward to the bill's swift passage."