Still, hiring while others face unpaid furloughs might seem a contradiction.

"We don't think agencies should be hiring if they are furloughing employees," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents Internal Revenue Service workers, among others.

As many as 80,000 IRS employees face furloughs of five to seven days once the tax season is over, Kelley said. And this is after the agency spent the past year and a half tightening its belt by filling only one out of four vacancies, she said. Still, the IRS has new job openings listed.

Some accuse the Obama administration of inflating the negative consequences of the sequester.

"I would have expected a keener political tuning fork as to how posting a bunch of job openings the day they raised fears about massive furloughs would look to the public," said Rick Manning, vice president of public policy and communications for Americans for Limited Government. "This is not about government slowing down or becoming smaller. This is about the Obama administration trying to make budget cuts politically untenable in the future and nothing else."

This month, Coburn sponsored an amendment to a funding bill that would have frozen hiring for any "nonessential" workers during sequestration.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, opposed the amendment, saying it could force agencies to hire contractors to do the government's work at a higher cost to taxpayers.

Coburn isn't opposed to sparing some workers from furlough whose jobs arguably are nonessential. He proposed shifting $6 million in funds for visitor services at the White House, the Grand Canyon and other national parks. This, too, didn't make it through the Senate.

Kettl said that while Washington debates the number of federal civilian employees, in reality, they account for about one-twelfth of federal spending. "Most federal spending is in entitlements and defense," he said.

Marc Goldwein, senior policy director for the nonprofit Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said federal agencies aren't hiring for the most part and that he's not worried about new employees.

"That's not the type of thing that keeps me up at night," Goldwein said. "What keeps me up is, they haven't done anything seriously to growing entitlement programs that ultimately will bankrupt the U.S. government."

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