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House unanimously approves back pay for 800,000 furloughed federal workers

The House on Saturday unanimously approved legislation to provide retroactive pay for furloughed federal workers after the government shutdown ends. The vote was 407-0.

Approximately 800,000 government employees have been furloughed during the shutdown, although the Pentagon announced Saturday that it will call 300,000 of its furloughed civilian employees back to work.

Although the White House has said it "strongly supports" the legislation, it's unclear how the Senate will proceed on the measure. The upper chamber was not expected to vote on it Saturday, and the Senate will not be in session Sunday. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor that it is "cruel" to promise pay in the future but not allow federal workers to go back to work while the shutdown continues. 

"It's really cruel to tell workers they'll receive back pay once the government opens and then refuse to open the government," he said. "Let's open the government." 

Reid said the message being sent to federal workers is: "Stay home. Watch TV. Play chess. Whatever you want to do, because we won't let you work."

Throughout the federal government, workers deemed essential and who are currently on the job will be paid for their work during the shutdown, although their paychecks could be delayed. But furloughed employees need congressional approval to receive back pay.

After past shutdowns, Congress passed similar measures, but federal employee unions had warned early in this impasse that there was no guarantee that Congress would act..

During the budget stalemate, the GOP-led House has passed a series of bills to fund some of the most popular programs impacted by the funding lapse - like national parks and care for veterans. But the Senate has declined to take up those piecemeal measures, saying that the government should instead be fully reopened.

The  back pay measure was introduced by Democrat Jim Moran of Northern Virginia, which has one of the country’s highest populations of federal workers.

"The issue is fairness," Moran said on the House floor. "It's just wrong for hundreds of thousands of federal employees not to know whether they're going to be able to make their mortgage payment, not to know whether they're going to be able to provide for their families."  

In a statement, House Speaker John Boehner lauded the passage of the measure and called for a resolution to the shutdown that includes measures to modify the Obama-backed health care reform legislation. 

“It’s encouraging to see both parties come together to provide fairness for the 800,000 federal workers hurt by this shutdown," he said. "Now we should do something about the 800,000 jobs being destroyed by the president’s health care law."

Democrats continued to say they want GOP leaders to allow a vote on a government funding bill without add-ons that would make major changes to Obamacare.

Saying that ensuring retroactive pay was "the right thing to do," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said the fact that furloughed workers remain unable to go to work "highlights the sheer folly" of the ongoing government shutdown.

The House's move comes as the shutdown stretched into its fifth day. In an interview with The Associated Press, President Barack Obama again called on House leaders to put the "clean" funding bill up for a vote. 

"We know that there are enough members in the House of Representatives -- Democrats and Republicans -- who are prepared to vote to reopen the government today," he said. "The only thing that is keeping that from happening is Speaker Boehner has made a decision that he is going to hold out to see if he can get additional concessions from us."

If the Senate does take up the bill, a fast-track process could allow the bill to be passed as early as Saturday, although that move would require every senator to agree.

In an interview with NBC News, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas -- whose lengthy argument against Obamacare last month galvanized the GOP opposition to the short-term budget bill that led to the ongoing shutdown -- would not say whether or not he will object to the agreement.

“I support the House working cooperatively to resolve this, to fund the government, and at the same time, to prevent the enormous harms Obamacare is inflicting on millions of Americans,” he said. 

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Saturday that most furloughed civilian defense department employees will be called back to their jobs and be paid for their work despite the ongoing government shutdown. 

Defense Department lawyers determined that, since these civilian employees provide support to military personnel and operations, they should be exempt from furlough under the same legislation that has kept uniformed military on the job during the shutdown. 

NBC's Kasie Hunt and Jim Miklaszewski contributed to this report.