Appealing to a constituency at the center of the debate over federal budget cuts, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin told a large crowd of federal employees that Maryland's lawmakers will fight for them as Congress begins making spending cuts required by the new debt ceiling law.
"We're going to stand up and defend what you do every day," the Maryland Democrat told a few hundred employees who gathered in the library of the U.S. Census Bureau. "We know the sacrifices that you've made. We know the abuse that you take."
Federal workershave been a target in the debates over budget cuts in recent months, with lawmakers of both parties suggesting that they might have to accept trims to their retirement pay and benefits.
Federal employees are working under a two-year pay freeze.
Maryland is home to 286,810 federal workers. Several agencies, including the Social Security Administration, the National Security Agency and the Census Bureau, have headquarters in the state.
In the days after Congress approved an unpopular plan toraise the debt ceiling and cut spending, Cardin and other lawmakers who supported the deal have been working to explain it to voters.
Cardin, who is up for re-election in 2012, spoke with seniors about the new law earlier in the week.
The new law demands about $1 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years while creatinga 12-member panel of lawmakers from both parties charged with finding a plan by November to reduce budget deficits by an additional $1.5 trillion.
If that panel deadlocks, or Congress fails to accept its recommendations, automatic cuts will kick in.
Either course, a compromise by the committee or the automatic cuts, could leave federal workers vulnerable.
"It's time to look at revenue," Cardin said, echoing a mantra sounded byDemocrats throughout the months-long debt ceiling debate. "It's time to look at our mandatory spending. It's time to look at bringing our soldiers home. ... It's time to use those savings and to stop looking toward the federal workforce."
Cardin received a round of applause when he noted that the Senate had voted Friday to end the stalemate over the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration — a move that will return about 4,000 federal employees to work after two weeks on furlough.
Cardin presided over the Senate during the pro forma session in which the FAA legislation was passed.
"Americans really appreciate what you do; they just have a hard time expressing it," Cardin told federal employees at the event, which was organized by public-sector unions. "I can tell you when they get their Social Security check they're happy. … They just take our federal workforce for granted."
Nick von Stein, a Census Bureau employee and a member of the American Federation of Government Employees, said he appreciated Cardin's comments but wants to see Washington do more to put people back to work — not just federal employees but also private-sector workers.
While he acknowledged the political difficulty of approving more spending, he said lawmakers should consider investing in infrastructure upgrades.
"I think he's probably doing what he can, but I don't think there's really anybody out there that's really doing anything to try to get people back to work," von Stein said. "There was the stimulus, and now there's nothing."