By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon said on Saturday it would recall the vast majority of around 350,000 civilian Defense Department employees sent home during the U.S. government shutdown, a move that could greatly lessen the impact of Washington infighting on the U.S. armed forces.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said a legal review of the "Pay Our Military Act," signed by President Barack Obama on Monday on the eve of the shutdown, would allow him to bring most civilians back to work next week.
"I expect us to be able to significantly reduce - but not eliminate - civilian furloughs under this process," Hagel said.
"Employees can expect to hear more information from their managers starting this weekend."
In a telephone briefing to reporters, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale estimated that the no more than a few tens of thousands of employees would remain on furlough.
"And it may be substantially less than that," he said, adding that furloughed personnel who did not qualify to return included legislative affairs personnel and some employees working in public affairs.
Hale estimated the number of civilian personnel now furloughed at roughly 350,000, down from previous estimates by U.S. defense officials of about 400,000 workers.
Since the start of the shutdown, American troops have felt the fallout from the feuding in Washington despite legislation meant to protect them. Republicans in the House of Representatives have tried to defund or delay Obama's signature healthcare law as a condition of funding the government, leading to the impasse.
With the shutdown, sailors have complained about delays in annual payments of re-enlistment bonuses, military academies have scaled back classes and key Pentagon offices - including ones dealing with intelligence matters - have been hollowed out. Even U.S. commissaries selling groceries to military families have been shuttered.
Although the return of civilian employees will lessen the blow of the government shutdown, Hale cautioned that the Pentagon was still unable to pay death gratuities on time to families of active duty troops who die during the shutdown.
Officials also cautioned that, in the event of a prolonged shutdown, the "Pay Our Military Act" did not allow for the Defense Department to buy new supplies necessary for many Pentagon employees to do their jobs.
"Critical parts, or supplies, will run out, and there will be limited authority for the Department to purchase more," Hagel said.
"If there comes a time that workers are unable to do their work, I will be forced once again to send them home."
For many affected civilians, it was the second time in as many months that they were forced to take unpaid leave.
More than 600,000 civilian U.S. defense employees were required to take unpaid leave in early August in a bid to reduce spending after across-the-board budget cuts went into force in March.
"This has been a very disruptive year for our people," Hagel said.
Michael Steel, press secretary for House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, said Hagel's decision was in line with the thinking of Republicans, who passed a bill last week to pay the military during the government shutdown.
"That was always the clear intent of the House-passed bill," Steel emailed Reuters.
Democrats have resisted efforts by Republicans to pass bills funding certain parts of the government such as the Veterans Administration and the National Park Service, insisting that the whole government be reopened.
Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said Hagel's action was "the right decision for the hundreds of thousands of patriots who support our soldiers, and now it's time to end this harmful government shutdown that has left hundreds of thousands of other federal workers sitting at home."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Vicki Allen and David Brunnstrom)