Even in South Korea, Pentagon chief can't steer clear of shutdown

Posted by James Rosen on October 1, 2013 

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Republic of Korea Minister of Defense KIM Kwan-jin stand at observation post Ouellette at the demilitarized zone Sept. 30, 2013. Hagel will visit with Korean counterparts as well as take part in the celebration festivities of the 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Armistice. Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo (Released)


Even halfway around the globe, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel found himself enmeshed in domestic politics.

In the midst of an Asia tour, Hagel condemned the partial government shutdown just beginning back home in an extensive exchange with reporters.

"It does have an effect on our relationships around the world, and it cuts straight to the obvious question: Can you rely on the United States as a reliable partner to fulfill its commitments to its allies?" Hagel said at a briefing in South Korea. "Here, this great republic and democracy, the United States of America, shuts down its government."

In case his scorn over the shutdown wasn't clear, Hagel added: "It's needless. It didn't have to happen. And I would hope that our Congress can find a new center of gravity, of responsibility, and start to govern, as is their responsibility."

Hagel said he left a formal dinner Tuesday night to confer with DOD Deputy Secretary Ash Carter and Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale about the shutdown's impact on the military, and that he would have a conference call with them Wednesday evening.

About the only thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on these days is the need to protect our troops. Late Tuesday, hours before the shutdown began, President Barack Obama signed a hastily passed law making clear that men and women in uniform are exempt from the closure.

But the Pentagon began furloughing 400,000 civilian employees at its massive headquarters in Arlington, Va., outside Washington and at dozens of military bases across the country and around the world.

Hagel, a former senator from Nebraska and the highest-ranking Republican in the Obama administration, tread a careful line between emphasizing the gravity of the shutdown's effect on the Pentagon and vowing that it won't harm national security.

"You're going to impact readiness," he said. "You're going to impact a mission. There's no point in kidding about that. But America should not be concerned that their security is now in jeopardy. It is not. It will not be."

Hagel said DOD lawyers are conferring with attorneys at the Justice Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget to see whether the Pentagon can call some of its furloughed civilians back to work.

"Our lawyers believe that maybe we can expand the exempt status," he said.

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, later sent Hagel a letter saying that the measure Obama signed into law late Monday authorizes "most civilian defense workers" to remain on the job.

"I believe the legislation provides you broad latitude, and I encourage you to use it," McKeon wrote.

McKeon intimated that Hagel was playing politics by furloughing more Pentagon civilian employees than was necessary.

"I hope you would agree with me that this is no time to use national security or our national security workforce as a political pawn," McKeon wrote.

Hagel noted that the new layoffs, however temporary they prove, come on top of furloughs and job cuts required by $52 billion in forced funding reductions under the congressionally imposed system of sequestration.



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