The Pentagon on Tuesday cut the number of furlough days for 650,000 Defense Department civilians from 11 to six — a welcome surprise for workers who have been saddled with a 20 percent pay cut since early July.
But defense officials and some lawmakers warned that the government-wide spending cuts known as the sequester are still harming the armed forces.
"Our military readiness remains significantly eroded as a result of the furloughs taken so far and reduced funding for training and equipment as a result of the sequester," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat whose district is home to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Naval Support Facility Indian Head and many defense contractors.
"There ought to be no doubt that sequestration is an irrational and senseless policy that will only put our economy and national security at greater and greater risk if it is allowed to remain in effect."
The furloughs have affected every military installation in Maryland, where some 45,000 civilians had been ordered to take one unpaid day off each week through the end of September.
Now most furloughs will be over by the end of next week.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has vowed to help furloughed defense workers since he took over the Pentagon in February, said the reduction in furlough days became possible after officials found savings elsewhere in the budget.
Hagel said the U.S. withdrawal of combat troops and equipment from Afghanistan is proving less costly than anticipated, and money was shifted from Pentagon weapons acquisition accounts to help pay for personnel.
"I … said we would do everything possible to find the money to reduce furlough days for our people," Hagel said in a statement. "I want to thank our civilian workers for their patience and dedication during these extraordinarily tough times."
Uniformed military personnel have been exempt from furloughs, but a broad swath of support staff, from base security to scientists, have been affected.
They include as many as 27,000 workers at Fort Meade, the state's largest employer; 11,500 at Aberdeen Proving Ground; 4,900 at Fort Detrick in Frederick and 2,400 at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.
At the Naval Academy, the furlough led officials to cancel the traditional Induction Day jet flyover, close the academy museum one day each week and contemplate canceling some class meetings when the academic year resumes in the fall.
At other installations in the state, commissaries have been shut down one day each week and nonessential maintenance work has been deferred.
Vice Admiral Michael H. Miller, the superintendent of the Naval Academy, sent an email to the academy's staff Tuesday afternoon with "high importance."
"I am extremely pleased to forward word from our Secretary of Defense announcing the reduction in the total number of furlough days for most DoD civilian employees," he wrote. "I realize that these furloughs have resulted in financial and professional hardship for you — and that adverse impact on your lives is certainly not lost on me."
While defense workers will welcome the reduction, it could complicate the task of staving off further Pentagon budget cuts next year.
Critics could argue that the doomsday scenarios painted by Pentagon officials earlier this year overstated the likely effects of $37 billion in budget cuts. They are part of the sequester, which took effect in March after Congress and the White House failed to agree on a budget plan.
The Defense Department initially predicted that civilian workers could face 22 days without pay this year. In May, that was halved to 11 days. The cut announced Tuesday nearly halved it again.
Hagel faced sharp questioning and complaints by civilian workers when he visited military bases in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida last month. He warned that additional budget cuts are likely next year, possibly triggering more furloughs and even layoffs, unless Congress and the White House reach a budget deal.
Around 85 percent of the defense department's 850,000 civilians have been furloughed, most of them for one day a week over the last five weeks. Most of those who are exempt from furloughs are foreign nationals or workers who are not paid through money appropriated by Congress.
Nearly 7,000 defense intelligence contractors whose jobs are deemed essential have been spared, along with about 29,000 workers at Navy shipyards.
Hagel reiterated Tuesday that the mandatory budget reductions have "seriously reduced military readiness" by forcing cuts in maintenance and training in each of the military services.
But he acknowledged that the Pentagon has been able to resume many of the training and other operations it previously had curtailed, after Congress agreed to let defense officials move money between accounts.
"The Air Force has begun flying again in key squadrons, the Army has increased funding for organizational training at selected units, and the Navy has restarted some maintenance and ordered deployments that otherwise would not have happened," he said.
Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, called the announcement on furloughs "welcome," and said it would "surely come as a measure of relief" to civilian defense workers in his district.
But he said Congress "must reach a compromise to replace the sequester with a big, balanced, and bipartisan alternative — and do it before the new fiscal year brings even deeper sequester cuts."
He called on the sides to resume negotiations when Congress returns to Washington next month.