Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., introduced the amendment last week.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., introduced the amendment last week. AP file photo

Senate gears up for vote on pay freeze extension

Prospects for passage of overall surface transportation bill remain unclear.

The Senate is slated to vote on a $109 billion surface transportation bill Tuesday that could include a proposal to extend the federal pay freeze to help fund tax relief and controversial energy provisions, including gas exploration and the Keystone XL Pipeline.

The amendment, introduced last week by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., would extend the current two-year federal salary freeze that began in January 2011 by one additional year to December 2013. Currently, it is set to expire in December 2012, and President Obama has proposed a 0.5 percent raise for civilians in 2013.

The House passed a pay freeze extension in February.

Under the Roberts amendment, the federal pay freeze extension would be part of a “deficit reduction trust fund,” along with savings from several energy production incentives and an offset from a refundable child tax credit provision.

The amendment would extend tax deductions for college tuition, allow gas exploration on federal lands, provide tax credits for energy-efficient homes and alternative fuel vehicles, and extend expired tax credits for small businesses.

The National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees expressed concerns about the potential passage of Roberts’ amendment.

In a letter to lawmakers Monday, AFGE Legislative and Political Director Beth Moten pointed out that a GS-5 employee with an annual salary of $31,315 would lose more than $3,800 over three years if the freeze were extended until the end of 2013.

“This pay freeze will have a real impact on federal workers, the majority of whom earn less than $50,000 a year,” AFGE said in a statement Monday.

Because the overall bill includes many provisions unpopular with Democrats, such as fast-tracking the Keystone XL Pipeline and offshore drilling, its passage is uncertain, one employee group representative told Government Executive.

“It’s laden with other things Democrats wouldn’t vote for,” the employee group official said, when discussing concerns about the Roberts amendment.

Labor unions also oppose on principle an amendment to the bill passed last week that would allow retirement-eligible federal employees to work part time.

The bill must get 60 votes to pass the Senate, and is backed by some Democrats, including Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters last week that he would defer to the Senate’s bill when the House reconvenes next week to consider its version (H.R. 7). The House bill includes provisions that would reduce federal workers’ retirement benefits to pay for transportation and energy provisions.

“Now that the speaker has publicly signaled he is willing to buck his conservative bloc and give the Senate bill a vote, momentum is on our side,” Schumer told National Journal last week.

“I took [Boehner] saying that as sort of a challenge to his caucus,” the federal employee group representative said. “He’s saying, ‘Look, if you can’t come up with something everyone can agree on, we will have to go with the Senate.’ So I wouldn’t rule out that the [House would] have their own bill that would still include some federal employee provisions.”