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We are starting to get a better sense of what might happen if automatic budget cuts kick in at the end of next week. Today, the Pentagon notified Congress that it may have to furlough some 800,000 civilian employees, asking them to take one day off a week without pay. Those furloughs could last for 22 weeks, right through the fall. That's unless Congress and the White House agree on a plan to avert the automatic cuts. NPR's Tom Bowman has our story.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Around the same time that Pentagon officials warned Congress about civilian furloughs, Clarence Belton was headed to work just across the river in Virginia. He hopped off a bus and headed to his job with the Navy Department. Like other defense civilians, he's worried.
CLARENCE BELTON: Everybody's a little concerned as you might expect. But we have to wait and see.
BOWMAN: Wait and see if the automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, go into effect on March 1st. If they do, then by the end of April, those furloughs would begin. Belton and others could be laid off one day a week through September. That would amount to a 20 percent pay cut. And already, it's having an effect.
BELTON: Most people are kind of reluctant to go out and spend. You know, if, in fact, this sequestration happens, then it's going to affect a lot of services that people would normally get. I think it will affect, like, restaurants and those kinds of things because people won't have the money.
BOWMAN: And senior Pentagon leaders are saying they won't have enough money either for training troops or maintaining fighter and bomber aircraft. Here's Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale speaking today about the impact of those cuts.
ROBERT HALE: And that will lead to actions, such as about two-thirds of the Army combat brigade teams being at unacceptable levels of readiness by the end of the year, excluding those actually deployed in Afghanistan. Most Air Force units that aren't deployed would be at below acceptable readiness levels by the end of the year.
BOWMAN: The Pentagon would be forced to trim its budget by about $46 billion this year. So that's one year. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta went so far as to say that should the cuts continue for a decade, at that roughly $50 billion pace, America's military would be damaged. Here's Panetta testifying before Congress recently.
SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Instead of being a first-rate power in the world, we'd turn into a second-rate power. That would be the result of sequester.
TODD HARRISON: Second to whom?
BOWMAN: That's Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He says even if the Pentagon gets hit hard with budget cuts, the U.S. military will still not have a rival.
HARRISON: Our military will still be the finest in the world.
BOWMAN: Harrison says some of the dire warnings from the Pentagon are a tactical move to scare Congress to come up with a budget deal.
HARRISON: I think it is both political posturing and realistic planning.
BOWMAN: Because the cuts are real. Harrison says the big problem now is that the spending cuts are across the board. That means almost everything will be cut around 9 percent with a few exceptions, like combat operations and military pay. But the Pentagon can shift some money around to protect the most vital operations. So it could end up cutting some things less, like training money for Army brigades, and cut more elsewhere, like civilian pay, sending those workers home for the full furlough of 22 days this year. That won't be welcome news for Pentagon civilians like Clarence Belton.
BELTON: That can have a devastating effect, particularly if you are a young government employee just starting out. In the D.C. area, with the cost of living here, you know, you miss a day or so a pay period, maybe two days, you're in trouble.
BOWMAN: How much trouble is still uncertain. Lawmakers have less than two weeks to come up with an alternative budget plan before the automatic cuts are triggered. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.