SEOUL, South Korea - Pentagon and administration lawyers are looking for ways to expand the number of Defense Department civilians who are exempt from furloughs, amid worries that the government shutdown is damaging U.S. credibility among its international allies, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday.
Hagel, who is on a weeklong trip to South Korea and Japan for meetings with defense and diplomatic officials, said he is being asked about the budget battle during his visit.
"It does have an effect on our relationships around the world and it cuts straight to the obvious question: Can you rely on the United States as a reliable partner to fulfill its commitments to its allies?" Hagel told reporters traveling with him. "It does cast a very significant pall over America's credibility to our allies when this kind of thing happens."
The U.S. is putting a greater focus on the Asia-Pacific region, where nervous allies like Japan and South Korea worry about threats from North Korea and rely on America to provide them with broader missile defense capabilities and military aid.
Congress triggered the partial government shutdown Monday when the House and Senate failed to reach an agreement on a budget bill, largely because of a long-running dispute over President Barack Obama's health care law. About 800,000 federal workers will report to their jobs for half a day Tuesday before being sent home, and most non-essential federal programs and services will be shut down.
Hagel acknowledged that the shutdown will affect the Pentagon's missions around the world, including military planning. But he said the U.S. will continue to fulfill its responsibilities to its allies, and the military will continue to keep America safe.
The budget crisis has consumed chunks of Hagel's time on the trip. He left a dinner with senior South Korean leaders Monday night to talk with his top budget advisers, and was planning another call Tuesday night.
Half of the department's 800,000 civilian workers are slated for furloughs beginning Tuesday. But Hagel said Pentagon lawyers are talking with the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget to determine if they might be able to allow more of those 400,000 furloughed civilians to continue working. He said he has gotten no answer yet.
Some of the fewer than two dozen civilians traveling with Hagel could face furloughs once they are back in the U.S. While on the trip, they are considered exempt because they are directly supporting Hagel, so they don't have to cut short their travels and return home.
Active-duty military, who are exempt from the furloughs and will continue to work, will still be paid on time as a result of legislation passed by Congress and signed by Obama. Hagel said the civilians who are exempt from the furloughs will also continue to be paid on time.
A former U.S. senator from Nebraska, Hagel was asked about Congress' recent inability to reach a budget agreement.
"I do worry though about the essence of governing in a democracy. We've seemed to lose that -- and that is consensus and compromise," he said. "No democracy can govern itself without consensus and compromise."