WASHINGTON -- With time to avoid federal layoffs running out, Congress is moving toward a showdown next week on legislation that would authorize bonuses of up to $25,000 for federal workers to resign or retire early.
Some agencies lack sufficient funds to pay all their employees until Oct. 1, when the next fiscal year begins, administration officials and members of Congress say, and will have to order layoffs if the buyouts are not approved.
After months of haggling, the House and Senate agreed yesterday on the major points of the legislation, resolving their differences over the financing of added pension costs caused by the buyouts. But the Senate continued to insist that the $22 billion that a reduction of 252,000 in the federal work force would save be earmarked for a trust fund to finance anti-crime legislation moving through Congress.
The House and Senate agreed to hold a joint conference Tuesday to iron out their differences over the trust fund.
In a surprise, the House instructed its conferees in a nonbinding vote to go along with the Senate's trust-fund proposal, which the chief House sponsor of the legislation has adamantly opposed. With Republicans almost unanimously behind the move, the House voted 231-150 to keep the anti-crime provision in the bill.
The vote "means nothing," said Rep. Constance A. Morella, the Montgomery County Republican, who will be one of the House conferees. "It's like a parent instructing a child, but the child is 18 or over and doesn't go along."
Mrs. Morella said she will vote to drop the trust fund from the legislation.
She and the four Maryland Democrats in the House -- Benjamin L. Cardin, Steny H. Hoyer, Kweisi Mfume and Albert R. Wynn -- voted against the nonbinding motion yesterday, while the state's three other Republicans -- Roscoe G. Bartlett, Helen Delich Bentley and Wayne T. Gilchrest -- voted for it.
Describing the trust-fund amendment as "a pig in a poke," Mrs. Morella said that linking crime-fighting to reducing the government work force is "federal employee bashing again." She objected to House approval of an anti-crime trust fund at a time when "we don't have an anti-crime bill before us." The House Judiciary Committee has not yet voted on the anti-crime package.
Mrs. Morella, who represents many of the 287,000 Marylanders who work for the government, would not speculate on how other House conferees would vote.
If the trust fund is dropped by the conferees, the bill then goes back to the Senate, which would have to either accept or reject it but could not at that point add amendments.
An aide to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, who has been pressing for buyout legislation for months, said buyout supporters fear a filibuster. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware, one of the Senate's chief backers of the trust fund, said, "I wouldn't rule it out."
L Sixty Senate votes would be needed to overcome a filibuster.
The current fiscal year reaches its halfway point in three weeks, and the Clinton administration has said that buyout legislation must be adopted soon if it is to produce savings during the current year.
As it is, the Office of Personnel Management announced three weeks ago that it would lay off 500 workers, and officials say some agencies could be forced into layoffs even if buyout legislation is adopted next week.
Nevertheless, said Janice La- Chance, spokeswoman for the agency, "Buyouts will definitely save jobs."
At this late stage of the fiscal year, the personnel office says a buyout will produce savings only for employees with a grade of GS-14 or higher, though savings at all pay levels could be realized next year.
In the Baltimore-Washington area, those workers make $60,000 or more, according to the personnel agency.
Those employees -- mostly mid- and upper-level managers -- are the workers targeted by President Clinton's promise to reduce the federal payroll by 252,000 people in the next five years.
Support for buyouts developed last year after Mr. Clinton agreed to the work force reduction. But authorizing legislation foundered in late November in the final hours of the 1993 session of Congress, a victim of deficit-reduction politics.
Congress took up the legislation when it returned in January, but it has been stalled by election year politics and arcane Capitol Hill budget rules.
Senator Roth indicated yesterday that he might drop the trust-fund proposal, saying, "There is a way out. Let's use it to reduce the deficit."
He accused opponents of the trust fund of wanting to use the money for other purposes.
Rep. William L. Clay, chairman of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee and the chief House sponsor of the legislation, has opposed the effort.