WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says he's still reviewing options that may avert furloughs more than three months after the Pentagon said automatic budget cuts may require unpaid leave for as many as 750,000 civilian workers.
"We are examining every option for responsible cuts in order to minimize or possibly eliminate the necessity of furloughs," Hagel said in a letter to Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla. "However, furloughs may be necessary during sequester to assure that the funding for our warfighters and readiness meet mission requirements."
The April 26 letter to Lankford, who serves on the House Budget Committee, reflects conflicting views of the need for furloughs among the military services -- the Navy says it doesn't need them -- as well as the Pentagon's changing fiscal outlook under the cuts called sequestration.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter first warned in January that the Pentagon's civilian employees "all over the country" may face forced days off.
Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters Friday that Hagel "remains in discussions with his senior team" and expected a decision to come "very soon." Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters this week that furlough notices might not go out until late May to coincide with completion of a "strategic choices" review that Hagel has ordered.
Furloughs already have begun for other federal agencies, including the White House staff. Congress moved last month to let the Federal Aviation Administration move around funds to stop furloughs of air-traffic controllers that forced delays at the nation's largest airports and provoked anger from travelers.
Navy officials have told lawmakers they believe their service can find enough savings to forestall furloughs for any of its 170,000 civilian employees, including 30,000 shipyard workers who maintain vessels, according to two people familiar with the private communications who asked not to be identified discussing them.
The service is awaiting final guidance from Pentagon officials, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello said.
Navy officials may be questioned about their furlough views during a hearing of the House defense appropriations subcommittee on May 7.
For the Air Force, "civilian furlough is still on the table," spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in an emailed statement.
"The Air Force will make notifications once directed to do so by the Department of Defense," she said. "We expect approximately 180,000 Air Force civilians" -- the entire workforce -- "to be affected," she said.
George Wright, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said "civil service employees expect to be notified in mid-May of 14 days of furlough that would begin in mid-June, which would last through the end of the fiscal year."
Wright said that, as of Friday, the Army planned to furlough about 251,000 of about 330,000 civilian workers.
Among those exempted are employees in Afghanistan or those paid with administrative funds paid to the U.S. by allies as part of foreign military sales. Also exempted are Army employees who perform intelligence work and are paid out of the national intelligence budget.
The Pentagon now estimates that it will need to cut $37 billion in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, down from $41 billion previously projected, after the White House Office of Management and Budget completed recalculations based on a spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama on March 26.
While most of the federal government received stopgap funding that continued at the previous year's levels, the Pentagon won more flexibility through inclusion of a full appropriations measure.
Based on the revised funding, Pentagon officials said in March that they would reduce planned furloughs to 14 days through September from the 22 days previously estimated, with the goal of saving $2.5 billion from the unpaid leave.
Separately, the Pentagon is in the final stages of drafting a request to Congress to permit the shift of $7.5 billion from lower priority programs and into operations and maintenance, the most permitted for such a reprogramming, according to a Pentagon official who asked not be identified discussing the request because it hasn't been made public.