Group of senators backs federal pay freeze

All employees except law enforcement officers and military personnel would be affected.

As part of a proposal to curb government spending, a group of Republican senators has suggested halting federal pay raises next year.

Seven Republican senators calling themselves the "Fiscal Watch Team" this week unveiled a proposal aimed at saving $125 billion. Among their ideas is a move to freeze 2006 pay raises for all federal employees except law enforcement officers and military personnel.

Republican Sens. John McCain, Ariz.; Sam Brownback, Kan.; Tom Coburn, Okla.; Jim DeMint, S.C.; John Ensign, Nev.; Lindsey Graham, S.C.; and John Sununu, N.H. are behind the proposal.

The senators are pushing the cost-saving measures-which also include a plan to postpone the Medicare prescription drug benefit another year and cut $24 billion in pork spending from the highway bill-as a method to fund relief efforts for hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"Now is a time to do the difficult - but imperative - job of distinguishing between needs and wants," Sununu said. "Although many in Washington may think otherwise, the federal government's resources are finite. We must find offsets in the budget to pay for the huge cost of rebuilding in the Gulf Coast region."

The group said it has been crafting the proposal for more than a month.

On Oct. 20, the Senate passed the Transportation-Treasury bill on a 93-1 vote, which included a 3.1 percent pay raise for civilian federal workers, putting the civil service on par with members of the military. McCain and Sununu abstained from voting on the bill, but Coburn, Brownback, DeMint, Ensign and Graham supported it.

The 3.1 percent raise was just one part of the massive Treasury-Transportation appropriations bill, which included total discretionary funding of $65.96 billion.

"There were a lot of things in our offset package that the senator felt constituted very tough decisions, that he has worked to get included in spending bills [in the past]" said Jack Finn, communications director for Ensign. "It is irresponsible to try to pay for the worthwhile projects on one hand and [Katrina relief on the other]. There are some important things that unfortunately will have to be set aside, at least for now."

Phone calls to the offices of Coburn, DeMint and Graham were not returned Friday, and a spokesman for Brownback referred inquires to Ensign's office.

National Treasury Employees Union president Colleen Kelley issued a statement Thursday denouncing the proposal, calling it "a cynical attempt to use natural disasters to justify policies that harm federal employees, many of who have been instrumental in rescue-and-recovery efforts."

In September, a group of Republican House members called for funding hurricane relief through a number of budget cuts, including calculating retirement annuities for federal employees based on an average of their five highest-earning years of service. Currently, employees' annuities are based on a high three-year average. Adding two years of lower pay would reduce retirees' pension benefits.

The House members also recommended lowering the government subsidy for some federal retirees who participate in the Federal Employees Health Benefits plan.

NEXT STORY: Costly Confusion

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