The House on Wednesday voted to freeze the pay of federal workers - including members of Congress - for a third consecutive year.
Supporters argued the Republican-crafted measure was warranted because federal employees on average earn higher salaries than their private sector counterparts.
"While private sector workers face the squeeze and millions of families continue searching for work, the idea of asking that their hard earned tax dollars go to fund a pay raise for government employees is just not right," said Rep. Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican who sponsored the bill.
The bill, which passed by a vote of 309 to 117, would continue the pay freeze on civilian federal workers beyond this December until the end of 2013. Seventy-two Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the measure, while only two Republicans voted against it.
Many Democrats said it was unfair to bind federal workers to a pay freeze for another year when the private sector was free from such legal constraints.
"Republicans are once again trying to make federal employees scapegoats for the slow economy resulting from Bush economic policies," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland in a letter to fellow Democrats.
Republicans pointed to a Congressional Budget Office report released Monday that showed federal workers are compensated on average 16 percent more than comparable private sector workers.
"We need to make sure that we are sending the signal that we're going to get the fiscal house straight here in Washington, that we stop spending money we don't have," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, told reporters Wednesday before the vote.
But Democrats countered that the CBO report showed federal employee pay varied significantly by level of education compared with the private sector.
Federal employees with a bachelor's degree or less on average are compensated more than similar workers in the private sector. But for federal employees with professional degrees, their total compensation figures were lower than wages earned by those in the private sector.
Democrats accused Republicans of using the measures to politically embarrass them, as a vote for the pay freeze would pit them against President Obama's proposal to give federal employees a 0.5 percent pay increase.
And by inserting the provision to freeze Congress' pay into the bill, Republicans created a scenario where Democrats who voted against the bill implicitly could be perceived as supporting a pay increase for themselves.
"A very good 30-second ad. Isn't that clever?" House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, told reporters Tuesday. "But it ignores the substance of what has proved to be a thorny issue, and that is how you properly assess the pay of federal employees."
Democratic leaders unsuccessfully pressed Republicans to spin off the provision to freeze Congress' own pay into a separate bill.
GOP leadership included the bill on the "suspension of rules" calendar, which allows bills to avoid facing amendments under an expedited process but at the price of the two-thirds requirement.
The bill now moves to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it faces an uncertain future.
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