Congress goes back to work tomorrow at noon.

President Clinton will give his final State of the Union address to Congress on Thursday evening. His budget (which is already being leaked to the media) will be presented to Congress on Feb. 7.

If you work for Uncle Sam--or are retired from a federal government job--this is hold-on-to-your-hat time.

Don't panic, but stay loose.

A number of legislative proposals relating to feds, and retirees, are pending from last year. That means the bills won't have to be reintroduced. The progress that the proposals made last year--from cosponsors to legislation to key committee hearings or floor votes--means a head start for all of the bills. That's the good news.

The bad news is that during a presidential election year, politicians can do wild and crazy things (including, sometimes, nothing) on the legislative front. This session will be short and often interrupted by extended breaks.

It will be tougher this year for pro-fed politicians to get legislation approved. It will be tougher for groups--unions and professional organizations--representing feds, managers and retirees, to sell a majority in Congress on the idea of doing good deeds for feds and retirees.

The White House is still deciding what kind of pay raise to recommend for white-collar federal workers in January 2001; 3.5 percent has been under consideration. That would be more than the 2.4 percent inflation adjustment retirees got this year, but far short of the average 4.8 percent approved for white-collar workers.

Although most federal and postal workers now are backing Vice President Gore for the presidency, they will kick up a fuss unless the white-collar raise is at least as good as this year's increase. A bipartisan coalition of House-Senate members is set to repeat this year's performance, when federal workers rode the backs of military personnel to get a higher raise. Clinton proposed a 4.4 percent adjustment for January 2000, but after Congress approved a 4.8 percent raise for military personnel, civilians were given equal treatment.

Some other bills to watch:

* A record number of House and Senate members have signed on, as cosponsors, to legislation that would modify the effect of the "offset" and "windfall" laws on the Social Security benefits of many current--and future--federal retirees. The offset provision can eliminate the Social Security spousal benefit of people who draw their own civil service annuity. The windfall law can reduce--but not eliminate--the amount of a Social Security benefit earned by a federal retiree who paid into Social Security only long enough to qualify for some kind of benefit.

Insiders rate the chances of modifying (but not repealing) the offset and windfall rules at 50-50. That's about 100 percent better than in previous years.

* Legislation that would allow federal workers to roll over money they have in a private 401(k) plan (from a previous employer) to the federal thrift savings plan has widespread support in Congress and the administration.

* The White House is likely to veto legislation that would let any federal worker--regardless of salary or pension plan--contribute the maximum amount allowed by the Internal Revenue Service into the thrift savings plan. This year, the maximum individual contribution to a 401(k) plan (not counting any employer match) is $10,500. Currently, feds are limited to contributing 5 percent to 10 percent of salary. That means few hit the ceiling. Under the bill, first sponsored by Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), any fed could contribute the limit on a tax-deferred basis.

* A long-term care insurance package (at group rates) could win congressional approval this year. Democrats and Republicans (who first proposed it) like the idea, but disagree on the number of plans, and carriers, that should be offered. Both parties want federal workers, family members and retirees, as well as active and retired military personnel, in the LTC program. What's needed is for some of the presidential candidates--from both parties--to endorse the concept.

Normally, January and February are months when federal workers (and retirees) who follow the news don't like what they read. This is typically the time that money-saving proposals (such as delaying retiree cost-of-living adjustments, or further downsizing federal agencies) get lots of ink and air time. But in an election year, that bad news--which rarely ever becomes a reality--is often sidelined by campaigning.

So, the good news for feds and retirees is that politicians probably won't have the time, or inclination, to push for programs that would cut into federal fringe programs such as retirement. The bad news is that in their getting-reelected preoccupation mode, they might not deal with pro-fed bills for which the groundwork has been laid and the political momentum established.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causeym@washpost.com

Sunday, Jan. 23, 2000