Md. Democrats balk at bipartisan tax deal

WASHINGTON — — All but one Maryland Democrat in Congress bucked party leaders Friday to vote against extending a nationwide payroll tax break through the end of the year, most of them because of a requirement that newly hired federal workers contribute more to their retirement.

The proposal, which will maintain a 2 percentage point payroll tax reduction for millions of Americans that was set to expire this month, failed even to capture the support of the two Maryland Democrats who were instrumental in its crafting: Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Chris Van Hollen.


"It's just wrong," said Cardin, who worked with Van Hollen to soften the impact on federal workers but who nevertheless opposed the bill.

Eight of the state's 10 lawmakers opposed the agreement, with most naming the federal worker provision as the reason. The legislation requires civilian employees hired after this year to contribute 3.1 percent of their salary to retirement instead of the current 0.8 percent.


Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat, and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, supported the rare bipartisan agreement. The measure passed the House, 293-132, and cleared the Senate, 60-36.

Ruppersberger, whose district includes the National Security Agency headquarters, stressed that the provision would not affect current federal workers but would help millions of employees in the private sector. The legislation also extends long-term unemployment benefits.

"The bill will boost the paycheck of every working American, and it will help the unemployed get back on their feet," he said. He said he "looks forward to a political climate" in which Congress could reverse the higher contribution.

The payroll tax break amounts to about $1,000 for a worker earning $50,000 a year.

Maryland is home to nearly 300,000 civilian federal employees — about 10 percent of the state's workforce. Several federal agencies, including Social Security and the National Institutes of Health, are based in the state.

Most of the state's Democrats were sharply critical of the federal retirement provision, which would raise $15 billion to offset the $30 billion cost of extending jobless benefits, and chose not to pay for the roughly $100 billion cost of extending the payroll tax holiday.

"It was really poking federal employees in the eye," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said minutes after voting against the bill.

"The question is, where does it end?" said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, noting that employees have already been working under a two-year pay freeze.


Federal employees have been a target for months as Congress and the White House look for ways to trim the nation's budget deficits. The GOP-controlled House is expected to take up a transportation funding bill this month that would require the federal workforce to shoulder far deeper cuts.

Bartlett said he was torn about the bill and almost changed his vote. He ultimately supported it because the tax break and unemployment benefits could help stimulate the economy, he said.