WASHINGTON -- After a compromise version of a federal worker buyout plan sailed through the House of Representatives yesterday, many lawmakers had new hope that the measure would soon would be free of its congressional stranglehold.
"I'm hopeful we'll be able to move this bill this week," said Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th. "I'm optimistic."
But after four months of debate, lingering objections to the buyout plan in the Senate may foster more congressional battles. While support for buyouts is strong on both sides of Capitol Hill, disagreements over the plan's financing and mechanics have caused delays.
Buyouts would encourage older, higher-ranked federal workers to retire or resign by providing up to $25,000 as an incentive. The provision lies at the heart of the Clinton administration's effort to cut 252,000 workers from the federal government by the year 2000.
Buyouts must be offered early in a fiscal year if the government hopes to offset the cost with salary savings. Because federal agencies are under tight budget constraints, layoffs are among the few other money-saving tools available.
The House compromise, drafted by Rep. William L. Clay, chairman of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, received strong bipartisan support and passed in the House by a unanimous voice vote.
The measure aims at resolving a House-Senate squabble over buyouts that centers on two issues -- how the government will pay for the buyouts and how the measure's anticipated $22 billion in long-term savings will be spent.
The compromise drafted by Mr. Clay, D-Mo., knocks out a major pillar of the Senate bill by scrapping a provision to gradually move savings from buyouts to an anti-crime trust fund.
Miring the debate in crime issues could sacrifice the buyout program and cause chaotic layoffs, Mr. Clay said.
"We have gone a long way to meet the Senate's concerns," he said. "The alternative is that thousands of federal employees will be involuntarily separated this year."
Mr. Clay's compromise also aims to eliminate a most serious threat to the buyout plan -- its cost.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that it would cost $519 million over the next five years, mainly because of increased costs to the federal pension system.
To make buyouts more cost-effective in the short-run, Mr. Clay proposed requiring all federal agencies to pay the federal pension plan $80 for each employee each year from 1995 to 1998.
But those provisions failed to satisfy some senators.
Shortly after the House passed the Clay bill, Sen. William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., dismissed the measure as a phony compromise.
"I am pleased that after almost one month of inaction on this important bill to downsize the federal work force, the House of Representatives has finally acted. Unfortunately, the House passed essentially the same bill," said Mr. Roth, the ranking minority member on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
He holds fast to his original criticism -- that the House fails to properly define how the buyout savings will be spent.
Mr. Roth said he was willing to give up the anti-crime provision if the House would agree to dedicate the buyout savings to deficit reduction.
"If the money isn't used to fund the crime bill, it should be used for deficit reduction," he said.
He called for convening of a House-Senate conference committee to draft a new buyout bill.
While Mr. Clay's measure does not earmark the savings for any specific use, even the fiercest budget-cutters in Congress are backing his compromise, said Mr. Hoyer, naming Rep. Timothy J. Penny, D-Minn., Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.