WASHINGTON -- Federal employees escaped the layoff noose this week, but they may be threatened with furloughs again next week in the continuing deficit-reduction drama being played out by the White House and Congress.
Congress passed a stopgap funding bill last night that included a ban on furloughs until next Monday. The measure keeps the government temporarily funded while Congress starts this week to implement the budget-summit agreement announced by President Bush yesterday afternoon.
Under the summit agreement, Congress must pass a budget resolution by Friday to reflect the deficit-reduction compromise. If it does not, federal employees could again be threatened with layoffs of up to two days week and a resulting pay cut of up to 40 percent.
Assuming Congress adopts the budget resolution on time, it would then pass another stopgap funding bill to allow lawmakers to approve appropriations bills to fit the new budget. If rifts surface over the money bills, federal employees again could be facing furloughs during the fourth week of October.
"Let our federal workers report to work tomorrow, the game of chicken is over," said Rep. Silvio Conte, R-Mass., before the House overwhelmingly passed a one-week stopgap funding bill.
After the vote, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said that, if the summit budget is adopted and funded to avert furloughs, it will still come at a price to federal workers. He said benefit loss would come in two areas:
* Federal employees would lose their right to get lump-sum retirement benefits, 50 percent of which they now can claim when they retire and the other 50 percent a year later. Employee unions had hoped the summit pact would stretch out lump sum payments to blunt the revenue loss.
Hoyer said that, if the budget agreement is approved later this month, federal employees could still claim their 50-50 lump-sum payments if they retire before Nov. 1.
* Postal Service employees would have to pay higher premiums to the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program. Currently, the federally subsidized mail operation offers much cheaper health insurance to its employees than does the government generally.
"Again, federal employees' pockets are being picked," Hoyer said. "It's unfortunate. But, overall, considering what was on the table, it was a good deal."
Hoyer, who was not one of the lawmakers sitting in the budget summit but who was close to negotiations because of his chairmanship of the House Democratic Caucus, said summit negotiators rejected cost-cutting proposals such as:
* Canceling federal retirees cost-of-living increases in January.
* Raising health insurance premiums of non-postal service federal employees, something the Bush administration had been urging.
* Shaving an already small 3.5 percent pay increase for federal employees.
"Federal employee provisions hurt them some, but it's good considering what could have happened to them," said Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif.
As for prospects confronting the federal work force in the coming weeks, Rep. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said, "It is unfair to use federal employees as pawns. . . . We're saying to them, 'You can go to work tomorrow, but hold on tight.' We treat federal employees like Saddam Hussain's so-called guests in Iraq."
Although brief debate was supposed to center on the stopgap funding bills that passed last night, several Republican lawmakers were already criticizing the summit agreement that will have to be voted on later. Typical of GOP comment was that of Rep. Chuck Douglas, R-N.H., who called the more than $130 billion in new taxes "a disaster."
Still, Hoyer said he believes the package will eventually pass and prevent further furlough and service cut threats. He said he was assured President Bush will work hard to influence Republicans in Congress.