Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday hailed the military's more than 800,000 civilian workers as vital to the nation's defense, even as the Department drew up plans that would furlough nearly all of them for 22 days beginning March 1.
"You're the unsung heroes of this nation," Panetta said in a farewell address to the civilian workforce in the courtyard of the Pentagon. "You support our warfighters downrange. You don't get a helluva lot of public recognition, but the fact is, your efforts make a difference. We could not do this job without the civilian workforce."
As Panetta spoke, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was on Capitol Hill testifying on the drastic impacts for DOD if Congress and the White House fail to reach a deal to avoid sequestration, which is set to begin on March 1 and would result in about $500 billion in cuts for defense over 10 years on top of $487 billion in cuts already underway.
By the end of February, "we've have to institute the process of furloughing them," Carter said of defense department civilians.
In his remarks, Panetta made a final pitch to Congressional leaders to compromise and avoid sequester. He told his audience that "because our leaders in Washington have not yet resolved the key budgetary issues facing our country, we are facing a period of budget uncertainty that threatens across-the-board cuts in defense and in domestic programs."
Panetta pledged to continue making the case for the DOD civilian workforce even after he leaves office, although it was still unclear when he would go back to his walnut farm in Monterrey, Calif.
"So you have my word that I will continue to fight for the rest of the time I'm in this office and wherever I go to try to urge the Congress of the United States to exercise the responsibility that they owe the American people to do what's right," Panetta said.
Panetta has said that he will not formally resign until the Senate confirms President Obama's nominee to succeed him – former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.)
The Senate Armed Services was expected to vote Tuesday afternoon to send Hagel's name to the Senate floor on a party-line vote, but several Republican senators have threatened to filibuster the floor vote.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and others have been demanding more information on Hagel's finances, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has said he might hold up the nomination if Obama declines to provide more information on the September attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.