WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon will recall at least 90 percent of its roughly 350,000 furloughed civilian workers in coming days, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced yesterday. That pledge, and a deal allowing back pay for all federal workers who have been furloughed, could substantially ease the impact of the government shutdown on the federal workforce.
But the stalemate on ending the shutdown and averting an unprecedented default on the federal debt in less than two weeks was unbroken. In all, about 800,000 federal workers had been furloughed.
Only two days after House Speaker John Boehner raised hopes by telling colleagues he won't let the nation go into default, key members of both parties conceded that no one has presented a plausible plan for avoiding it.
There was, however, relief for thousands of furloughed Pentagon workers and the promise of back pay for all federal workers who have been forced off the job.
The Defense Department said the recall is based on a law passed by Congress last week that allows the Pentagon to end furloughs for "employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members."
Republicans had complained that the administration was slow to bring back those workers in light of the law.
Boehner, asked yesterday whether Congress was any closer to resolving the larger impasse, replied: "No."
Even the day's top bipartisan achievement -- agreeing to pay furloughed federal employees for the work days they are missing -- was a thin victory. Congress made the same deal after the mid-1990s shutdowns, and yesterday's 407-0 vote was widely expected.
Still, it triggered the sort of derisive quarreling that has prevented Congress from resolving the larger funding and debt dilemmas.
"Of all the bizarre moments" involved in the debate, said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), "this may be the most bizarre: that we will pay people not to work." He called it "the new tea party sense of fiscal responsibility."
House Republicans said they want to ease the pain from the partial shutdown. Democrats said Congress should fully reopen the government and let employees work for the pay they're going to receive.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday the Democratic-controlled Senate will approve retroactive pay for furloughed workers, although he didn't specify when.
Boehner (R-Ohio) and President Barack Obama say they abhor the idea of a default. But they and their respective parties have not budged from positions that bar a solution.
Obama says he will not negotiate tax and spending issues if they are linked to a debt-ceiling hike. Boehner and his GOP allies say they will not raise the ceiling unless Democrats agree to deep spending cuts.
Many House Republicans also demand curbs to Obama's signature health care law as a condition of reopening the government. The president and his allies call the demand absurd.