After celebrating the Fourth of July with parades and picnics, Congress returns to face a mountain of work and little time to hash through it all.

At best, Congress has only three weeks until the next recess, which will carry lawmakers through the end of August. More than likely, a lot of decisions will be made after Labor Day. They include:

* A pay raise. Neither the House nor the Senate has acted on the Transportation-Treasury appropriations bill, which most likely will be the vehicle for the January 2005 federal pay raise.

The White House has recommended a 1.5 percent pay increase for the civil service, but an attempt will be made in Congress to boost the raise to the 3.5 percent scheduled for military personnel in the name of maintaining "pay parity."

The House this year approved a nonbinding measure in favor of continuing pay parity, which has been the practice in all but a few years in the past two decades.

* Agency operations. Some appropriations bills, for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, carry restrictions on converting federal jobs to contractor positions. For example, language in the House measure covering the Department of Homeland Security bars contracting for certain jobs involving investigating and adjudicating immigration rights and benefits.

The House and Senate will be negotiating over a Defense Department bill that would restrict contracting there by mandating that formal cost comparison studies be done for functions employing 10 or more employees. The bill also would give employees of all agencies the right to challenge contracting-out decisions to the General Accounting Office.

* Civil service changes. A measure that would increase recruitment and retention bonuses appears to be the major civil service-related bill that will move through Congress this year. The Senate has passed its version, and a counterpart has been approved by the House Government Reform Committee. Both versions also would give time off to federal employees who travel during off-duty hours.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee has approved a bill that would end the twice-yearly open seasons in the Thrift Savings Plan, effectively allowing employees to join the program or change the amount they are investing at any time.

The Senate approved legislation as it left for the holiday that would keep its watchdog agency, the GAO, in the vanguard of the government's workplace changes.

Under the legislation, which the Senate sent to President Bush for his signature, the GAO would be able to break its link to the federal employee pay system and adopt compensation practices that are more closely tied to job performance. The bill also would make permanent the GAO's ability to offer cash buyouts and early retirements to employees who volunteer to leave.

In addition, the bill would permit the GAO to change its name to the Government Accountability Office.

* Retirement benefits. Proposals targeting reductions in Social Security benefits that mainly affect those who retire under the Civil Service Retirement System continue to gather support in Congress but seem to be making little or no progress toward passage.

The measures aim to ease the effects of the "windfall elimination provision" and the "government pension offset" and appear bogged down by the general reluctance to touch Social Security in an election year.

Also stalled is a measure that would allow federal retirees to get the same "premium conversion" tax break on their health insurance premiums that applies to active employees. The House Government Reform Committee has approved the measure, but the House Ways and Means Committee, which also has control over the bill, has taken no action on it.

Diary Live

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Diary associate Eric Yoder contributed to this report.