WASHINGTON -- The federal government moved one step closer to slimming down its figure last week as both the House and Senate passed bills that would allow federal agencies to offer employee buyouts of up to $25,000.
The Clinton administration is backing the buyout plan in its efforts to skim 252,000 people from the federal work force by 1999. House and Senate negotiators must hammer out a compromise plan before sending the measure to President Clinton.
Action on the bill is suspended, with Capitol Hill lawmakers home in their districts for a week-long recess. But the pressure is on to authorize the buyouts by mid-March because after that date the plan would cost the government too much money.
The Senate on Friday approved by voice vote a measure by Sen. William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., which would offer bonuses of no more than $25,000 to federal employees who voluntarily resign or take early retirement.
The day before, the House showed strong bipartisan support for buyout legislation drafted by Rep. William Clay, D-Mo. The measure passed by a 391 to 17 vote.
Despite that strong backing, the plan soon may be limping on Capitol Hill. Its political Achilles heel is a proposal offered by Mr. Roth to take savings from the buyout plan and use the money to hire 100,000 new police officers as part of the crime bill.
Critics predict huge delays in buyout negotiations if lawmakers start engaging in a side-debate over a provision in the politically volatile crime bill. And, they add, money for new police officers already is provided in President Clinton's budget plan.
Other opponents complain that the buyout plan is far too generous for a government in debt, and argue that retirement incentives are much more stingy in the private sector.
Many of those critics support "reductions in force," known as RIFs, as a way to trim the government.
Several lawmakers contend that the buyouts would create an estimated $20 billion to $30 billion in payroll savings.
Supporters of the buyout plan call it the only viable alternative to RIFs, and a sure-fire way to further the goals of Vice President Al Gore's "Reinventing Government" initiative.
Earlier this month, three members of the Clinton Cabinet -- Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Transportation Secretary Federico Pena -- said the RIFs would get rid of front-line workers and rule out the long-term savings promised by buyouts.
Maryland, with its nearly 289,000 federal employees, has a stake in the buyouts.
In Baltimore, the Social Security Administration headquarters provides jobs for 15,000, while the Health Care Financing Administration employs 2,600.
Vice President Gore called for closer labor-management relations in a speech before some 400 government union officials last week, and was received with a warm round of applause.
The event was the highlight of a day of partnership training run by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).
"It's the whole idea of consensus building, to teach members of a union how to create a partnership council at their local level," said AFGE spokeswoman Diane Witiak. Mr. Gore's involvement underscores "the change in attitude, atmosphere and environment to get people to work more effectively together," she said.
Mr. Gore headed the National Performance Review, a coalition of union leaders and Clinton administration officials. That task force recently released a report calling for changes in the hiring, promotion and firing of federal workers.