Negotiators are once again looking to tap federal workers' benefits to help make ends meet elsewhere in the budget, saying government employees may have to pay more into their retirement plans.
Labor unions balked at the proposal Thursday, saying federal employees have already suffered through pay freezes and unpaid furloughs. Some Democrats on Capitol Hill vowed to try to halt any further pain.
But negotiators said the hit to pensions is better for workers than the furloughs that could result if no budget deal is reached, and the next round of sequesters hits in full in January, which would keep total discretionary spending well below $1 trillion.
"If we don't arrive at some sort of agreement, then we're going to be at $967 [billion] and that's not good news for federal workers. There will be a lot more unpaid furlough days," said Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican and one of the 29 members of the panel trying to negotiate a 2014 budget.
Federal employees aren't the only group being targeted by the budget conference committee, which has just one week to come up a deal to keep the government running past mid-January. The negotiators are also considering raising airport security fees on travelers and cutting into subsidies for farmers.
Time is running out to get a deal before the House ends business for the year, and Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday that he is looking at stopgap measures for both spending and a farm bill.
Mr. Cole said budget negotiators likely have until Wednesday to make a deal, and if one hasn't been reached, the House will move ahead with a stopgap "continuing resolution" to fund the government through January.
Federal employees say they've already done enough to help balance the budget over the last few years, when they've faced pay freezes, an increased workload and a morale-crushing 16-day shutdown earlier this year.
"Federal employees have had more than enough," said J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "No other group has sacrificed anywhere close to the $114B in cuts forced on federal employees and their families, and that doesn't even count losses all employees had this summer with sequestration furloughs."
While the government already requires higher pension payments for new hires, the plan being discussed in the budget negotiations would require all workers to pay more into their pension without receiving more pay in retirement, essentially cutting an employee's take-home pay.
"Let me be crystal clear on this: federal employees earned their retirement. This is not something Congress can negotiate away," Mr. Cox said.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said Thursday that he "vehemently opposes" any budget hardship placed on the federal workforce.
"We should be recognizing and thanking our federal employees for their hard work and important contributions to our economy and our security — not making them into a scapegoat for our nation's challenges," he said in a statement.
The poor working conditions for federal employees could make recruiting and retention difficult — though it may not matter since the government will likely not be able to do much hiring in these tough economic times, said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. Being unable to backfill those who leave will only create a heavier workload for those who choose to keep their jobs, she added.
"There were employees who during 16-day shutdown were so discouraged that they went out and found other jobs, they came back from shutdown and left," she said. "Other employees in large numbers are retiring right now. They had no plans to retire, but they're tired. They just told me that they're done, they don't want to do this anymore, and they would not recommend federal employment to anyone they know or care about."
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