WASHINGTON -- A plan to reduce the size of the federal work force by offering buyouts is causing deep rifts on Capitol Hill -- and the measure may die.
Earlier this month, the House and Senate passed separate bills offering up to $25,000 in cash buyouts to selected workers who quit or retire.
Although the two bills are similar, a couple of controversial differences could kill the buyout deal this year.
"We have a disaster in the making," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.
"We're at a catastrophic standoff between the House and the Senate."
Chances of creating a compromise version of the buyout plans this year are growing dimmer by the minute, said Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-Md. "It's possible, but it appears to be less and less probable," she said.
The buyout plan would trim 252,000 people from the United States government's work force over the next five years, including a share of Maryland's 286,000 federal workers. If a plan is not approved soon, federal agencies may begin firing front-line workers with the least seniority, many of whom are women and minorities, Mrs. Morella said.
Supporters of the House measure blame Sen. William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., for the problems.
Mr. Roth inserted an amendment into the Senate version of the bill placing the equivalent of up to 26 percent of salary into the civil service retirement fund for employees who take buyouts. He argues this provision keeps the buyout bill from becoming a budget-buster.
But Mrs. Norton and Rep. William Clay, D-Mo., chairman of House Post Office-Civil Service Committee, reject that reasoning.
"I am absolutely bewildered by this because in the House, we were able to work this out with bipartisan support," Mrs. Norton said. "Essentially, the House agreed that the savings from buyouts were so immense, the bill would be off-budget."
The House approved the legislation overwhelmingly and agreed that federal agencies should put just 9 percent of salary into the retirement fund.
Mrs. Norton said Mr. Clay is so angry that the Senate did not adopt the House bill outright that he may stymie all negotiations over the measure.
"I don't think the logjam will be broken unless the administration energetically gets into the mix," Mrs. Norton said. "My chairman doesn't want a [House-Senate] conference at this point."
In a written statement released yesterday, Mr. Clay criticized the Senate but stopped short of threatening to block the measure.
"The Senate could have accepted the House bill, which was passed overwhelmingly, and sent it on to the president who would have signed it into law immediately," Mr. Clay said. "The Senate has made it more difficult to use the buyout authority."
Another controversial Roth amendment would use savings from the downsizing to pay for hiring 100,000 new police officers over the next five years. That proposal creates what some observers call a jurisdictional nightmare between congressional oversight committees.
Originally, lawmakers only expected members from the two committees that drafted the buyout legislation -- House Post Office-Civil Service and Senate Governmental Affairs -- to sit on the conference committee.
But members of the House Judiciary Committee want a seat on the conference committee.
"We're watching it because we would probably be entitled to have conferees appointed from this committee," said an aide to the Judiciary Committee, which oversees national anti-crime legislation.
Making federal worker legislation part of the anti-crime debate could prove fatal for the buyout bill, the aide said.
"There's a separate crime bill and most everybody is expecting the crime bill issues to be debated in the crime bill," the aide said. "This will probably make it harder for them to get the underlying bill through conference."
Nevertheless, Mr. Roth's crime amendment in the buyout bill may stay. Last week, President Clinton endorsed the Senate buyout plan in a speech to the Ohio Peace Officers Training Academy. His endorsement has given the Senate buyout bill added firepower, Judiciary Committee aides say.
If neither side backs down, the government could be forced to impose reductions-in-force, or RIFs, Mrs. Morella said. Those agency-wide firings could cost the government more in unemployment claims, severance pay and lawsuits than in buyout costs, she said.
She said the government has until the end of the month to negotiate a final bill. If Congress does not authorize the buyouts by mid-March, the plan will become too costly for the federal government.
"I think it's kind of an ominous situation," Mrs. Morella said. "We're in the 11th hour."