Senate enacts buyout bill for federal workers

March 25, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Breaking a Republican filibuster, the Senate enacted legislation yesterday that will allow federal agencies to offer employees up to $25,000 to resign or retire early, and sent the bill to President Clinton for his signature.

Without the bill, a tool in the administration's effort to reduce the federal work force by 252,000 as part of its "reinventing government" program, some agencies would have had to lay off workers, a process that buyout supporters claimed would have been far more disruptive and more costly.

Officials of the Office of Personnel Management estimate that 60,000 to 100,000 federal workers will take the buyout.

Republicans tried to block the bill because House-Senate negotiators had eliminated a GOP amendment to target the savings generated by the buyout -- estimated at $22 billion over six years -- for deficit reduction or an anti-crime trust fund.

"We have enough of a crime problem without adding to it, holding the federal employees hostage," Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland told his colleagues during a brief debate yesterday. Representing more than 280,000 federal workers, Mr. Sarbanes was heavily involved in the effort to pass the bill.

Sen. Phil Gramm, the Texas Republican who had sponsored the GOP amendment, said, "A small number of people in the House . . . want to squander this money instead of using it for deficit reduction or to fight violent crime." Later, he added, "If you don't lock money away when you save it, it ends up being spent."

The lobbying was intense yesterday, with Vice President Al Gore getting involved. When the key cloture vote was taken, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, was on the Senate floor lobbying to end the filibuster.

Once Mr. Clinton signs the bill, each federal agency will decide whether to offer buyouts and how many to offer, an Office of Personnel Management official said yesterday. The buyout authority will last until April 1, 1995. Employees who are offered buyouts will be able to collect $25,000 or an amount equal to the severance they would receive if fired, whichever is less.

Some agencies do not have enough money in their budgets to pay all of their workers through this fiscal year, which will end Sept. 30. With half the year gone, the Office of Personnel Management has said that savings can be achieved only by buying out workers at a pay grade of GS-14 -- about $60,000 a year in the Baltimore-Washington area -- or higher. Administration officials have warned that some layoffs could still be possible.

For the fiscal year that will begin Oct. 1, savings will be possible at virtually all levels.

With the buyout legislation tied up on Capitol Hill, the Office of Personnel Management said a month ago that it would lay off more than 500 employees May 1.

An OPM official said yesterday that, with the adoption of the buyout bill, some of those layoffs might be avoided if other workers can be induced to leave through buyouts.

The Senate vote ended a six-month saga during which the legislation became entangled in deficit reduction politics.

Congress came close to adopting it before adjourning for the year in November, but the bill stalled at the last minute.

In the end, the Senate included the deficit reduction and crime trust fund provisions in its version of the bill, while the House did not.

In the negotiations to resolve the differences over the two bills, the Senate amendment was stripped out. Once the negotiations were completed, the bill went back to the House and Senate for final votes.

The House adopted the conference report Wednesday, largely on a party line vote, and sent it to the Senate, where Republicans were waiting to filibuster it. Anxious to recess today for two weeks, Democrats and Republicans agreed to cloture.

Sixty votes are needed for cloture, the procedure used for ending a filibuster. The first roll call was two votes short. But, with five Republicans switching their votes, the Senate ended the filibuster, 63-36, and then passed the bill, 99-1.

Both Maryland senators, Mr. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, voted to end the filibuster and for the bill.

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