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Bit of U.S. pay raise may be paid after all Congress looks to restore part of cut


WASHINGTON -- Federal workers, who would take a hit in the paycheck from President Clinton's budget proposal, may get part of the hit back.

There is a move in Congress to restore the so-called locality pay increase, scheduled for next Jan. 1, that President Clinton proposed to freeze.

Until the president made his budget proposals, federal workers -- including 300,000 in Maryland -- were scheduled to get two raises in the coming year.

One would have been the annual across-the-board raise pegged to the average private-sector raise. The second would have been the first of nine annual raises designed to make the pay of federal workers comparable to salaries in the private sector, what is known as the "locality" pay raise.

The Senate and House budget committees adopted language this week suggesting that Congress will find a way later this year to finance the raise by making cuts elsewhere, thus preserving the savings the president sought with the pay freeze.

Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a member of the Appropriations Committee as well as head of the subcommittee that handles federal employees' pay, says the Clinton administration has agreed to a restoration of the locality raise provided cuts are made elsewhere.

"In a time when we are being asked for joint sacrifice, it would be unseemly -- that is not to say unjustified, mind you, because I think it would be justified" -- to insist on full raises for federal workers, Mr. Hoyer added.

fTC So, the across-the-board raise seems dead. But to delay the first step in the elimination of the pay gap between the public and private sectors "would undermine the system," Mr. Hoyer adds. "It would make it harder to retain and recruit people."

A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget says the administration "has indicated to Mr. Hoyer that we would certainly be prepared to work with him on that." He will not say, however, that the administration has agreed to a deal.

A bipartisan bill adopted in 1990 and signed by President Bush provides for elimination of the pay gap gradually over a nine-year period beginning Jan. 1. That gap was 30 percent nationwide when last measured in 1991, a Hoyer aide says.

But pay differences vary from city to city and region to region. The 1990 bill required the Bureau of Labor Statistics to calculate the gap for each area of the country. Federal workers in the Baltimore and Washington areas will have to wait until the bureau finishes its work this summer to find out how much of a raise they might get. The raise would be phased in over nine years.

Estimates of the size of this year's locality raise vary. Mr. Hoyer says it could average as much as 4 percent to 5 percent nationwide. A congressional aide close to the issue says it will be more like 2 percent in Maryland.

Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat and member of the Budget Committee, is "hopeful" that the raise will be saved. Speaking of the committee's report, he says, "This indicates we want to achieve [the raise]. This represents a long-overdue development."

John Sturdivant, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents federal workers, also is hopeful.

The government could finance the raise by reducing by 10 percent its contracts with outside businesses and organizations, contends. Leon E. Panetta, director of Management and Budget, said earlier this week the cost of such contracts is $103 billon.

"We made some small progress in getting the House and Senate budget committees to recognize the importance of funding locality pay," says Mr. Sturdivant.

His organization endorsed Mr. Clinton last June, only to be hit with the pay freeze. "I regret that we were not part of the discussion" before the freeze was proposed, he says. "[But] I'm not prepared to wish for George Bush back yet."

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