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Fed-Heavy Districts Didn’t Get Uniform Voting Bloc

Washington-area Members of Congress led opposition to last week’s payroll tax cut conference report, arguing that federal workers shouldn’t bear the brunt of financing the legislation. But, as one veteran lawmaker observed, federal workers are spread throughout the country.

The top five districts for federal employees are in Maryland and Virginia, but districts in Utah, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama are in the top 15, according to the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.

Of those 15 House Members representing the top districts for federal workers, four voted for the package that extends the payroll tax break through December. They are GOP Reps. Rob Wittman (Va.) and Tom Cole (Okla.) and Democratic Reps. Colleen Hanabusa (Hawaii) and Norm Dicks (Wash.).

Members of Congress also blunted a potential public relations headache by including Congressional pensions as part of their offset to pay for the payroll tax cut extension they passed last week.

The offset hits the 100,000 new workers projected to join the federal government’s payroll next year and lawmakers elected in the 2012 elections. Sitting Members provided themselves political cover by including future lawmakers, although their own pensions won’t be affected by the change.

The offset was a last-minute concession for Maryland lawmakers, including Sen. Ben Cardin, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, all Democrats who lobbied hard not to hit the pensions of existing federal employees. Still, those Members voted against the payroll package and widely rebuked the $15 billion offset to cover the extension of long-term unemployment benefits and a heading off of a scheduled cut to reimbursements for doctors who treat Medicare patients.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said she was “volcanic” about the “pay-for,” which requires new hires to pay 2.3 percent more into their retirement accounts, and Hoyer was equally fired up on the floor just minutes before the chamber voted to approve the package.

“This Congress is on the path to be the most anti-federal worker Congress that I have served in,” he said, suggesting the hit to pensions would make it difficult for the federal government to recruit new employees to replace retiring baby boomers.

Hoyer noted that although his district includes 60,000 federal workers, “most of the federal employees don’t live in the Washington metropolitan area. They live in your districts, all over this country.”

“I don’t like the pension pay-for,” Cole said, adding that he agreed Congressional pensions should not be exempt from the cut. “I think it ought to hit both. I don’t see how you can do something to people and exclude yourself.”

The payroll tax plan passed the House on Friday 293-132, with many of the 91 Republican defectors attributing their “no” votes to the fact that the payroll tax relief was not offset. Still others said they voted “yes” to give families some financial relief in the recovering economy.

Wittman, whose Virginia district is home to more than 37,000 active and retired federal workers largely employed by the Defense Department and NASA, said he voted for the package to help “individuals and families continuing to struggle in this economy.”

Still, the Republican added that “it is concerning to me that federal workers have become a target for revenue while this Congress and the administration have failed to address the real drivers of our deficit or real tax reform.”

President Barack Obama announced a freeze on federal pay in 2010, and it was extended in the temporary payroll tax deal that was passed in December. He also proposed in January a plan that would give him the authority to reorganize and tighten government bureaucracy. Obama called on Congress earlier this week to pass legislation giving him that authority, but his plea drew little reaction from House Republicans, who were cool to his plan.

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