By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Defense Department will put half its 800,000 civilian employees on unpaid leave next week and halt military activity not critical to national security if Congress fails to resolve a looming funding crisis, Pentagon officials said on Friday.
The U.S. military's 1.4 million uniformed personnel would continue fighting the Afghanistan war, patrolling the Mediterranean off Syria and conducting other operations considered necessary for security, but they wouldn't get paid until Congress resolves the spending dilemma, officials said.
It would be the second time in two months that many Defense Department civilian workers have been placed on unpaid leave due to ongoing budget fights between congressional Republicans and President Barack Obama's Democratic administration.
Funding for many U.S. government operations runs out next week with the start of the new fiscal year on October 1, and unless Congress reaches a deal to pay for its activities, much of the government will be forced to shut down. Only certain activities permitted under law are allowed to continue, officials said.
"During a lapse, DoD (the Defense Department) cannot pay military personnel and civilian personnel, even if they have been directed to work," Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told reporters.
"We would be required to do some other bad things to our people," he added, saying the Pentagon couldn't immediately pay death benefits to the families of troops who die on active duty and would have to close commissaries where many military families shop.
More than 600,000 civilian defense employees were placed on unpaid leave for six days in early August due to across-the-board budget cuts that went into effect in March, nearly halfway through the fiscal year.
"A lapse of appropriations causes civilian furloughs. It is one more blow to the morale of our civilian work force, and that morale is already low," Hale said. "Even if a lapse never occurs, the planning itself is disruptive. People are worrying right now about whether their paychecks are going to be delayed rather than focusing on the mission."
Hale's comments came as the department, the U.S. government's largest agency, released an eight page contingency plan to prepare its employees for a potential shutdown.
Officials said military personnel, who are paid twice a month, would receive their October 1 paychecks but might see their October 15 paychecks delayed if a government shutdown takes place and no funding deal has been reached by October 7.
Civilian employees are paid every two weeks and received a paycheck on Friday. If the government shuts down and they are placed on unpaid leave, they would be entitled to pay for the remaining four days of September at their next pay period, unless it is delayed because of the shutdown, officials said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in a memo accompanying the plan that U.S. forces would continue to fight in the Afghanistan war and conduct other operations "necessary for the safety of human life and protection of property" because those activities are exempted from a lapse in appropriations.
"All other activities would need to be shut down in an orderly and deliberate fashion," Carter said.
Guidance issued by the department said contractors working under fully funded agreements awarded before appropriations ran out would continue working, but new or extended contracts could not be executed.
"No funds will be available to pay such new contracts or place additional increments of funding on contracts until Congress appropriates additional funds," the contingency plan said.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Ken Wills)