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On Pay Freeze, Some Changes of Heart

Slight decrease in support from last year; some lawmakers cite security concerns

A lot has changed in one year, from the presidential election to the fiscal cliff.

So has the breakdown of support for a bill to extend the two-year pay freeze for federal employees, while codifying a moratorium on salary increases for members of Congress that’s already been signed into law.

On Feb. 15, the House passed such a bill by a vote of 261-154, aiming to turn back President Barack Obama’s executive order from December to give government workers a 0.5 percent wage increase in 2013. Its language is nearly identical to that of the House bill passed a little over a year ago, 309-117.

At that time, House Democrats found themselves in an uncomfortable position: They wanted to oppose a bill that would force civil servants to shoulder the burden of deficit reduction, but they didn’t want to appear in favor of giving themselves a pay raise. Seventy-two of them voted “yes.”

Just two Republicans opposed the measure last year: ex-Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland and Rep. Don Young of Alaska.

On Feb. 15, 29 fewer Democrats voted in favor of the pay freeze legislation; 10 Republicans, all of whom supported the bill last year, voted the other way.

For Democrats, the “no” votes this time both supported Obama and federal workers, many of whom are unionized and support the party.

Voting “no” was also a statement against House Republicans, whom Democrats accuse of stonewalling legislation to avert the March 1 sequester.

Though Republicans argue that the bill passed Feb. 15 would ease the hardship of the sequester, Democrats scoffed that it was a meaningful contribution.

“We fiddle while America faces a sequester burn,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said Feb. 15. “It has now wasted two weeks of debate on nickel and diming the people we rely on to protect our domestic safety, our international security, our food and drugs, our health care, our borders.”

Congressional pay is already frozen. In the last days of the 112th Congress, legislation to avert the expiration of a series of tax cuts included a pay freeze for lawmakers.

Meanwhile, having gone on record in the previous Congress as being against receiving a raise in a tight fiscal environment, some Republicans felt freer to vote against a bill targeting civil servants.

Spokeswomen for Republicans Frank R. Wolf and Rob Wittman of Virginia and for Tom Marino of Pennsylvania indicated that this was the reason their bosses voted “no” this time. Meanwhile, 12 freshman Democrats voted “yes.”

Some Republicans who voted “no” framed it in terms of security. “The CIA, literally, the people who were in Benghazi, are they going to have their pay frozen?” asked New York Republican Peter T. King of those on the ground during the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya last fall. “That’s the wrong signal to send.”

Republican Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo of New Jersey said his work on the Intelligence Committee over the past year had made an impression on him.

“The information that I continue to receive makes me more aware all the time of the great threat the United States is under and the extraordinary risks men and women are taking on behalf of all the rest of us,” he said. “We can’t be paying them enough for what they’re doing as it is.”

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