By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon is expected to notify Congress this week that it plans to put some 800,000 civilian employees on unpaid leave for up to 22 days in the coming months if a new $46 billion budget cut goes into effect on March 1, a defense official said on Tuesday.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said congressional notification could come as early as Wednesday. Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters in late January that congressional notification of the furloughs would come "in the next few weeks."
The Defense Department, which is considering having workers take off one day per week for 22 weeks, is required to notify Congress 45 days before furloughing employees. Individual employee notification is required 30 days in advance and is expected to take place in the coming weeks, the official said.
With the department nearly five months into its fiscal year, it is running out of time to provide congressional notification and still be able to carry out the plan, which Carter said would save as much as $5 billion.
"Obviously this is a terrible thing to have to do to our employees and to the mission," Carter told reporters in January. "But it's necessary because it'll save $5 billion and we have to find that money."
The unpaid leave would not affect uniformed personnel, whose jobs and pay have been exempted from the cuts by President Barack Obama.
But Carter said 44 percent of Defense Department civilians are veterans and most do not work at a desk in Washington but carry out other functions in communities across the country.
The Pentagon is facing $46 billion in across-the-board budget cuts on March 1 under a mechanism known as sequestration unless Congress takes action to delay them.
The rigid cuts, which hit programs equally regardless of strategic importance, were ordered in the Budget Control Act of 2011 in an effort to force lawmakers to negotiate an alternative package of reductions to curb the government's trillion dollar deficits. But Congress failed to reach a deal.
The cuts - which total about $500 billion over a decade - were supposed to go into force on January 2, but lawmakers delayed them until March 1 in order to have more time to try to achieve a deal. Little headway has been made since then.
The reductions come as the Pentagon is already trying to implement $487 billion in cuts to projected spending over a decade that were also part of the Budget Control Act.
Pentagon officials accepted those cuts and integrated them into a new defense strategy unveiled last year, but they have expressed alarm over the additional reductions, saying they will cause a readiness crisis this year and do damage over the long run.
Some analysts are skeptical, however, saying Pentagon officials are exaggerating the likely effects of the cuts in an effort to pressure Congress into taking steps to stop the reductions.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)