WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a surprise announcement on Saturday that he would reinstate almost all of the 400,000 civilian employees of the Defense Department who had been sent home when the government shut down last week.
Mr. Hagel said “most DoD civilians” would be exempted from the furloughs and would return to work next week because Pentagon and Justice Department lawyers interpreted a stopgap budget measure signed into law last week by President Obama, which guaranteed pay for service members, to also apply to a larger number of civilian workers.
That action came as the House, in a rare Saturday session, voted unanimously to guarantee that all federal workers will receive back pay once the government shutdown ends, offering a promise of relief, if not an actual rescue, to more than one million government employees either furloughed or working without pay.
When the government shut down on Tuesday, about half of the Defense Department’s civilian work force of 800,000 was ordered to stay home; military personnel are automatically exempted from the shutdown.
In a letter to the department released Saturday, Mr. Hagel said government lawyers had advised that under the Pay Our Military Act, the Defense Department could “eliminate furloughs for employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members.”
The act was passed by Congress and signed by the president just before the shutdown began to make sure the military was paid even if the rest of the government was shuttered. The language from the measure is now being interpreted as requiring the work of far more Pentagon civilian employees, most of whom support the military effort at installations outside Washington.
“I expect us to be able to significantly reduce — but not eliminate — civilian furloughs under this process,” Mr. Hagel said.
Mr. Hagel warned that “many important activities remain curtailed while the shutdown goes on,” and he cited disruptions across the armed services.
When the House met on Saturday, it voted 407 to 0 to approve the measure supported by Mr. Obama to guarantee back pay for furloughed government employees.
The vote followed a morning debate in which lawmakers from both parties extolled government doctors and nurses saving lives, emergency relief workers braving disasters to rescue citizens, and NASA scientists exploring space. In 2011, many of those same lawmakers, swept to power on a Tea Party wave, pressed for legislation imposing a hard freeze on government salaries and held hearings on a federal work force they said was overpaid and bloated.
After the vote, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, criticized Mr. Obama for what he called a failure of leadership for refusing to negotiate a way out of the impasse. But he said Republican leaders would not allow a vote to reopen the government without delivering a blow to the president’s health care law, with a delay in the mandate that individuals buy health insurance and a prohibition on federal subsidies for members of Congress, White House leaders and their staff members, who must buy policies on the law’s new insurance exchanges.
“The Republican position has been and continues to be no special treatment under the law, no special treatment under Obamacare,” Mr. Cantor said.
The House also voted, 400 to 1, on a resolution saying military chaplains should be able to conduct religious services, despite the shutdown. Republicans accused the Obama administration of stifling religious freedom. Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services, said Republicans had concocted an issue that did not exist.
The lone “no” vote belonged to Representative Bill Enyart, Democrat of Illinois.
The bill continues a House Republican strategy of passing a series of smaller spending measures on popular topics in an effort to pressure Democrats to reopen at least portions of the government.
So far, the bills passed include ones to finance the National Institutes of Health; to reopen national parks, monuments and museums; to pay for veterans programs; and to pay inactive members of the National Guard and reservists. In the coming days, House Republicans expect to take up at least nine other small spending bills, like financing the Head Start program for low-income children, as well as the Department of Homeland Security’s border protection programs.
The Senate also convened on Saturday and is expected to pass the back pay measure. But the Senate is unlikely to take up any of the other House bills. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, has said he will not negotiate with Republicans or finance the government on a piecemeal basis. The Democrats want the Republicans to end the shutdown — the first in 17 years — with a spending bill that has no strings attached.
Ensuring that workers receive back pay is one of the few issues on which Mr. Obama and House Republicans agree. In a statement on Friday, the Office of Management and Budget said that administration “strongly supports” the Federal Employee Retroactive Pay Fairness Act.
The pay for government workers — which, unlike the spending sought in other Republican measures, would be retroactive — might be considered by the Senate, though no final decisions have been made.
At issue is a temporary measure to keep the government operating. House Republicans have linked the measure to efforts to delay or defund the president’s signature health care legislation. Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats have refused to negotiate on the issue, demanding that the House vote on a continuing resolution without attachments.