Pentagon recalls most furloughed civilians

Most of the estimated 350,000 civilian employees furloughed by the Defense Department during the US government shutdown will be recalled to work, the Pentagon said Saturday.

In a conference call with reporters, Department of Defense officials roughly estimated some 90 percent or more of civilian employees would be allowed to return to their jobs, and aimed to bring many back as soon as Monday.

"These people want to get back to work, and we want them back at work," Undersecretary of Defense and Comptroller Robert Hale told reporters.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Pentagon lawyers had concluded the Pay Our Military Act, signed by US President Obama earlier in the week, allows employees "whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members" to be exempted from the shutdown.

"I expect us to be able to significantly reduce -- but not eliminate -- civilian furloughs under this process," he said.

"My guess is that we'll bring most of them back, that no more than a few tens of thousands will remain on furlough and it may be substantially less than that," Hale told reporters.

Much of the Defense Department's civilian workforce is employed at bases across the country, and the military relies on them to keep equipment running and logistical networks humming.

Officials had lowered the estimated number of furloughed civilian defense employees from 400,000 to 350,000.

The move came on the fifth day of a government shutdown caused by a budget impasse between the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-held Senate.

The Defense Department accounts for roughly half of the 800,000 government workers sent home at the start of the shutdown.

"Each of these measures that's passed helps make it a little less painful, and hopefully paves the way for a negotiation where we can sit down and work on the bigger issues that are at stake here," Senator John Thune told AFP.

"Though I do not believe the law required these hundreds of thousands of workers to be furloughed in the first place, it is welcome news," Howard McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

Earlier Saturday, the House unanimously approved a measure to pay furloughed government workers retroactively, in a another move to ease the pressure.

But there were no overt signs of negotiations to end the crisis, as leaders of both camps blamed each other.