Senate inaction on huge spending bill could delay pay raise

Federal employees might see a delayed pay raise in 2004 if Congress fails to pass a pending fiscal 2004 omnibus appropriations bill by the end of the year.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is seeking unanimous consent to bring up the $328.1 billion omnibus bill by voice vote Dec. 9, but on Tuesday it appeared that Democratic opposition would block that effort and push the issue over into late January.

The omnibus bill encompasses several spending bills, including the fiscal 2004 Transportation-Treasury appropriations bill, which contains language granting white-collar federal employees a 4.1 percent average pay raise in 2004.

The Bush administration has until Nov. 30 to propose an alternative to pay levels set under procedures laid out in the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act. Absent such a proposal or the passage of the omnibus, federal employees would at least temporarily receive a 2 percent across-the-board pay raise proposed by President Bush in late August. Last year, Congress delayed passing a fiscal 2003 omnibus bill, which also included a 4.1 percent raise, until late January. As a result, federal employees received only a 3.1 percent across-the-board pay raise and no locality-based pay increase at the beginning of the year. Even after the bill passed, it was a month before the president signed it and several more weeks before the Bush administration announced how the higher raise would be divided up. Some employees didn't see the retroactive portion of the pay raise until mid-summer.

Republicans hope to pressure Democrats to approve the omnibus in December because of the impact on home state projects and unfunded programs. The House plans to reconvene Monday, Dec. 8 for a single day to pass the omnibus regardless of the Senate's plans, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Tuesday.

"We need to move forward. It doesn't make any difference to us," the DeLay spokesman said of the Senate's failure to finish appropriations bills. Appropriators filed the omnibus bill in the House Tuesday. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said he and Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., would review their options in early December.

Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday that due to the inclusion of several controversial provisions in the omnibus bill, it was currently "dead" and should not be revived until January.

"I'm sitting here today and I can't find a better way to describe it," he told reporters. "A legislator who would vote for that would have to have rocks in his head."

Reid suggested the White House was trying to "eliminate Congress" by insisting on removing provisions protecting some workers' overtime pay and providing flexibility in federal job competitions. But if lawmakers do not clear the measure until January, many programs will be forced to operate at last year's levels under the current continuing resolution, affecting agencies' budget planning. The White House would face delays in implementing its global AIDS and Millennium Challenge Account initiatives.

As drafted, the omnibus covers seven appropriations bills. Together, they adhere to the top-line figure negotiated by lawmakers and the White House of $785.6 billion overall in fiscal 2004 discretionary spending.

Appropriators paid for about $4.6 billion in additions above the top-line number by rescinding about $1.8 billion in unspent defense funds, although the Pentagon could choose where the rescissions are made, and an across-the-board 0.6 percent cut to other programs, resulting in an additional $2.8 billion in savings.

The additions include $1.65 billion for education; $1.3 billion for veterans' health care; $1 billion for election overhaul; $350 million for the Millennium Challenge Account; and about $300 million for "miscellaneous" projects, such as $50 million for security at next year's Democratic convention in Boston and the Republican gathering in New York ($25 million each) and $50 million for an Iowa City, Iowa, environmental education facility.

Tanya N. Ballard contributed to this report.