WASHINGTON -- After months of congressional wrangling, a House-Senate compromise allowing federal agencies to offer as much as $25,000 to employees who resign or retire early was to come to the House floor for a vote today.
But Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., hopes to delay action on the measure. He wants to send it back to conference committee to have inserted in the bill a controversial provision favored by the Senate to dedicate the estimated $22 billion in savings from reduced personnel costs to an anti-crime trust fund.
House supporters of the bill argue that the provision will tie up the buyout bill in unnecessary political debate over crime prevention. They successfully blocked it from the compromise measure last week.
Even if Mr. Castle's effort fails, the fight won't be over. A Senate filibuster is expected over any buyout bill that does not include the provision.
"If the House doesn't agree to the language, then the Senate will filibuster, so it's in everybody's interest to have the conferees agree to this language," Claire DeMatteis, a spokeswoman for Mr. Castle, said yesterday.
With a filibuster, supporters of the trust fund will create another chance to rewrite the buyout bill in the conference committee. If the Senate fails to garner the 60 votes necessary to stop a filibuster, then action on the bill could be delayed until after lawmakers return in April from their spring recess.
Sen. William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., a leading supporter of the anti-crime trust fund, said he thinks the House will refuse to pass the buyout bill, thus sending it back to the conference committee.
"I think the vote on [the Castle motion] will be close, but I think it will carry," he said. "My hope is that we'll be in conference again."
The buyouts are the foundation for the Clinton administration's effort to trim 252,000 workers from the federal bureaucracy by the year 2000. So it is important to pass the buyout bill early in the fiscal year if the government hopes to offset its cost through salary savings.
Union representatives warn that unless the political infighting ceases, federal agencies will have no choice but to cut costs through random firings.
"It's a shame federal employees are being held hostage because the compromise is not being reached," says Diane Witiak, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees. "The buyout legislation is a humane way to reduce the federal work force and at the same time make it more cost-effective and efficient."
Yesterday, the House's leading opponent of the anti-crime trust fund, Rep. William Clay, D-Mo., was mum on the bill's chances.
"Everything makes you nervous because you never know what's going to happen" on the House floor, said Mr. Clay's spokeswoman, Betty Lee. "But we intend to go ahead with our plans."
In the Senate, some Democrats are solidly behind Mr. Clay.
Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, has warned senators that if they fail to stave off a filibuster, then they will be forced to work on the legislation next week during recess, according to the Federal Government Service Task Force, which tracks federal worker legislation for members of Congress.
Jerry Shaw, who represents high-level federal employees through the Senior Executives Association, thinks some lawmakers won't mind holding up debate on the buyout bill if it means they get to sound off on the hot-button crime issue.
He says another reason for the effort to delay passage of the buyout bill is the money involved. Since Congress removed the budget "fire walls" -- barriers separating defense, discretionary and other budgets -- savings from one government sector can be used to fund another. As a result, Mr. Shaw says, lawmakers looking for cash to fund their favorite programs are going after the estimated savings from buyouts.
"When people saw those savings . . . there was a scramble on the Hill to see who was going to get the money first," he says. "Now they're doing their dangedest to get that money and go back to their districts and say, 'Golly! Look what I've got!' "