Bill advances with TSP reforms, but not sick leave fix

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., led effort to strip pay and benefits measures from legislation. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., led effort to strip pay and benefits measures from legislation. Susan Walsh/AP

The Senate on Wednesday advanced major legislation that includes several provisions expanding federal employees' options under the Thrift Savings Plan, but does not allow some employees to count unused sick leave toward retirement savings.

In a 67-30 vote to end legislative debate, lawmakers moved H.R. 1256 forward, but without an amendment that would have enabled federal workers in the Federal Employees Retirement System to count unused sick leave toward their retirement annuities -- a benefit employees in the older Civil Service Retirement System currently have.

That amendment, inserted by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., also contained provisions that would have made it easier for the government to rehire federal retirees part time; modified how the CSRS calculates annuity payments for employees who retire as part-time workers; and moved federal employees in Alaska, Hawaii and U.S. territories from cost-of-living adjustments into the federal locality pay system.

TSP provisions remaining in the legislation included measures that would automatically enroll federal civilian hires into the plan; enable employees to invest their retirement money into mutual funds of their choice; allow enrollees to create a Roth 401(k) so they do not have to pay taxes when funds are withdrawn; and permit spouses of deceased federal workers to continue managing their funds in the TSP. Current law requires spouses to withdraw those funds 60 days after their spouse passed away and reinvest them elsewhere.

Wrangling over dozens of amendments to the massive bill, which would give the Food and Drug Administration certain authority to regulate tobacco products, prevented Lieberman's amendment from inclusion. Senate parliamentarians declared the amendment nongermane.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., tried to push the provisions in Lieberman's amendment forward through a legislative maneuver, but was blocked by an objection from Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. Such a legislative move requires unanimous consent.

DeMint's office said several senators were concerned that the amendment was not relevant to the bill, and objected that the Democratic leadership had kept other amendments from consideration. DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton said members were concerned about the amendment's cost, as it had not been scored by the Congressional Budget Office.

The House version of the legislation contains some of the provisions in Lieberman's amendment, including the FERS sick leave fix.

The unexpected development had federal employee unions reeling.

"This was a bad day for the federal workforce," said Randy Erwin, legislative director of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

Supporters of the overall legislation said they hoped that the provisions in the Lieberman amendment were still enacted into law -- possibly through a conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, praised the overall bill, but expressed disappointment that it did not include the measures in Lieberman's amendment.

"NTEU will continue to work to enact those provisions," Kelley said.

The Senate plans to vote on Friday on the bill's passage.

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