WASHINGTON — With lawmakers struggling to reach a deal to avert steep spending cuts, Pentagon officials said Monday that 800,000 civilian employees could be ordered to go on unpaid leave for periods of time.
The military's service chiefs, who have already been making reductions as part of a separate, long-term effort to whittle down the defense budget, have been working to assess the impact of the congressionally mandated cuts.
The broad fiscal retrenchment was scheduled to begin Wednesday, but a deal reached late Monday by the White House and Senate Republicans would put off the cuts until March. The agreement has yet to win congressional approval.
It is also possible that lawmakers will find ways in coming weeks to allocate separate funding for the Pentagon and, in that way, avoid the furloughs.
"Senior leaders in the department are working hard on how to communicate to the workforce what the consequences might be," a senior defense official said Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon's contingency planning.
Neither party wants to see a dramatic drop in defense spending.
During a recent trip to Kuwait, Afghanistan and Turkey, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told U.S. service members that he was deeply worried about the effect the cuts could have on national security and military readiness. The Pentagon would have to slash $500 billion over the next decade on top of cuts it has been working toward as the country eases off a war footing, he said.
"That would do significant harm to our ability to provide strong defense for the country," Panetta told U.S. troops in Kuwait. "It would be reckless for the Congress to allow that to happen."
If the Pentagon is forced to proceed with the reductions, part of a process known as sequestration, officials might be forced to make significant personnel cuts to the Army and the Marine Corps, which are already in the midst of a gradual force reduction. The department would also be likely to put on hold or downscale costly weapons system upgrades and purchases.