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Rollback of cuts fuels claims that government inflated impact of partial shutdown

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Oct. 11, 2013: Visitors to Zion National Park take in the sights after the park opened on a limited basis Friday near Springdale, Utah. (AP)

Two weeks into the partial government shutdown, the Obama administration is increasingly easing off some of its most painful cuts -- fueling the perception among critics that the government initially imposed visible, but ultimately unnecessary, cutbacks as a way to pressure Republicans. 

The Department of the Interior late last week agreed to let states use their own money to reopen some national parks. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also determined football and other sports could continue at service academies through October. 

Following outrage from military groups, the Pentagon contracted with a charity to provide death benefits to the families of fallen soldiers, before President Obama abruptly signed legislation to do just that. 

Earlier, the Pentagon also announced most of its 350,000 furloughed civilian military personnel would return to their jobs. And CIA Director John Brennan said he would begin bringing back employees deemed necessary to the agency's core missions. 

"It appears they are truly just making this up as they go along, as they have put out one inconsistent policy after another," House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said in a statement, accusing the administration of playing "political games." 

Charges that the Obama administration exaggerated the cutbacks from the outset were amplified Sunday when hundreds of vets marched in Washington to protest the closure of popular war memorials, including open-air sites. 

The group organizing the protest charged in a statement that the closure was implemented "in a mean-spirited fit of selfish anger" -- though the Park Service says it's trying to operate within the bounds of the law. 

Congress is now entering a vital week as lawmakers try and craft a way out of the partial shutdown, with a debt-ceiling deadline looming on Thursday. With the impasse lasting perhaps longer than many anticipated, the administration's move to roll back some of the cuts has done little to staunch criticism that President Obama is making Americans feel the pain in hopes of forcing House Republicans to cave.  

The criticism began when military veterans were blocked from visiting the WWII memorial on the National Mall. It hit a flash point last Wednesday when Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in Congress, criticized Obama, a fellow Democrat, in a White House meeting for not allowing her city during the partial government shutdown to spend revenue controlled by the federal government. 

"The president's point of view I had to take issue with" she told Fox News after the meeting, in which she interrupted Obama a few times, according to others in attendance. "The city is running out of its contingency funds." 

The Republican-led House agreed to free up the money, but the proposal was rejected by the Democrat-controlled Senate. 

Hastings was among the first to suggest Obama was picking and choosing his targets. He pointed out that while high-profile sites like the Lincoln Memorial were closed, low-key monuments scattered throughout the District were open. 

"It appears as though only the highly visible monuments and areas are being closed to the public -- further proof that the Obama administration is only playing politics and purposely choosing to make this shutdown as painful as possible," he said soon after the partial shutdown began.   

And a National Park Service ranger told The Washington Times: "We've been told to make life as difficult for people as we can. It's disgusting." 

The administration, in rolling back some of its cuts, argues it was compelled to act with a heavy hand at the beginning of the budget impasse. 

As hundreds of thousands of Defense Department civilians were furloughed, Pentagon officials said they were waiting on a legal opinion on whether they were permitted under a recently signed law to bring back the workers. 

However, they also acted as major defense contractors announced impending furloughs, including Lockheed Martin Corp. saying days earlier that it was poised to send home 3,000 workers. 

The cuts themselves are supposed to be rooted in agency-by-agency plans submitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget before the partial shutdown began. Those plans are based on the legal standard that the federal government only spend money on items necessary for "the safety of human life or the protection of property." 

Perhaps the most problematic of the cuts implemented so far for the Obama administration was the decision to withhold death benefits for the families of more than two-dozen military service members. 

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney last week said the president was "very disturbed to learn of this problem" and that he expected it to be fixed that day.

However, the administration later determined it didn't have the authority to pay the money, and a charity group would cover the cost.

The president, though, then reversed course and signed a bill authorizing the payments. 

William A. Thien, national commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars, blasted Congress and the administration over its treatment of veterans during the stalemate. 

"We also have a hypocritical National Park Service that closes our nation's war memorials to veterans and a federal government that continues to make foreign aid payments while our own national security is threatened because Congress has failed to pass a defense budget or put an end to the sequester," he said.