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As 'fiscal cliff' looms, federal workers rally against further pay cuts

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Federal employees in Maryland and elsewhere stepped up pressure on Congress Wednesday to avert the looming fiscal crisis without making significant cuts to government pay and benefits.

In rallies across the country and in a new ad campaign running in Washington, federal employee unions noted concessions that members have made toward deficit reduction and sought to counter a growing sense of inevitability that they will nevertheless be asked to do more.

The latest public relations blitz by federal employees — who make up about 10 percent of Maryland's civilian workforce — came as the Obama administration and Republicans in the House of Representatives continued to talk past one another over how to avoid the year-end combination of tax increases and deep, automatic spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff."

As they have done often over the past year, several dozen Social Security Administration employees took to North Greene Street in Baltimore to highlight cuts the agency — and their paychecks — have endured.

Maryland is home to about 300,000 federal workers.

Celisa Ford, 50, a claims representative who has worked for Social Security for eight years, held back tears as she said she will have to pull her daughter out of college because she can no longer afford tuition. Federal employees, she noted, are operating under a two-year pay freeze that has saved taxpayers $60 billion.

"I'm losing sleep and I'm stressed," said Ford, a Baltimore County resident who also works for the American Federation of Government Employees, a union that represents many Social Security employees. "She's a good student. I've tried everything."

Congress and the White House are trying to avoid $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and tax increases that will be triggered automatically if they do not reach a deal by the end of the year. Many economists have speculated that going over the cliff could push the economy back into recession next year.

Negotiations have centered on income tax rates for family income over $250,000. President Barack Obama wants to return those rates to where they were during the Clinton administration, while congressional Republicans counter that any rate increases would be harmful to the nation's fragile economy.

"Every credible economist will tell you that you can't just do it on spending cuts," Obama said during a meeting Wednesday with business leaders. "We can't cut our way to prosperity. ... There's got to be a balanced approach in which we also are bringing in new revenues."

House Republicans continued to argue that Obama and other Democrats have not been as specific about the cuts they could agree to as they have about the tax increases they insist on.

"The president talks about a balanced approach, but he's rejected spending cuts that he has supported previously and refuses to identify serious spending cuts he is willing to make today," said House Speaker John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican. "This is preventing us from reaching an agreement."

Failure in Washington to find a middle ground could adversely affect many Marylanders — seniors on Medicare, the unemployed, developers who rely on tax credits to build low-income housing and anyone who files a tax return. The White House will release a report Thursday that estimates 2.2 million Maryland families would be hit with higher taxes if there is no deal.

But federal employees — among the most vocal and organized constituencies in the state — probably would be affected whether a budget deal is reached or not. To avert the cliff, lawmakers will have to make significant spending cuts, and federal benefits and pay usually come up in those discussions.

In fact, Boehner included workforce cuts in a proposal Republicans floated this week to avoid the cliff. Those measures, which include an extension of the federal pay freeze and a 10 percent reduction in the federal workforce, have been approved in the House.

A coalition of federal employee unions published an advertisement in a Capitol Hill newspaper Wednesday arguing that the workforce has already contributed $103 billion to deficit reduction through the pay freeze and pension cuts.

The groups organized rallies Wednesday at 100 Social Security offices in more than 20 states. In Baltimore, protesters held signs that read "No cuts" and "Don't make federal workers the scapegoats." Yet there were far fewer people at the rally than there were for a similar event at the height of last year's debate to raise the debt ceiling.

Jack Riismandel, a 65-year-old Columbia resident who has worked for Social Security for 35 years and is a union leader, said the debate in Washington over reducing deficits has been demoralizing for federal workers.

"We live in the community — we're out and about — and there's always this perception that we don't do anything," Riismandel said. "The people that I work with, they work hard. We do our jobs."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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